Music is quite liberating as a performer. Performers are afforded choices between all permutations of pitches and their placements within time. Whether those choices mean anything is a different argument; either the musician has made those choices for a reason, or a reason the musician made those choices is projected on by the audience. Ever since the advent of secular music, there has been temptation to relate to music through other means – to try and give it another meaning outside of a sacred context.
Before I begin; this is a very narrow set of opinions on what I believe is a broad topic. I’ve decided to break this into two parts – external politics and internal politics of music.
Some musicians have projected politics onto their music. At the height of the civil rights movement in America, the Art Ensemble of Chicago would dress in traditional African clothing and parade through the streets, often integrating other facets of the arts (theatre, visual art, dance) into their performances. Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite is a provocative suite dedicated to the oppression of African-American slaves. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. There is an entire genre called ‘National Socialist Black Metal’ which is authenticated by neo-Nazism-driven lyrics.
What makes the diverse types of musics political is the image that has been projected onto it by the artists. Sure, you can hear the anguish in Abbey Lincoln’s voice for the generations of African-Americans who were enslaved. You can hear the war-like bravado that Beethoven may attribute to Bonaparte. And NSBM probably sounds like a very pleasing and politically correct version of MmmBop. But what correlation it has to the music itself is unclear. To clarify, music is just frequencies (and how they are presented over time); not lyrics, not liner notes, not album covers.
The University of California in Santa Barbara’s Music Department presented research on political pop music and whether or not that translates to political fans.
“It is not clear how or to what extent general audiences relate to music on a political level,” the researchers Mark Pedelty and Linda Keefe claim. Political pop appears to attract more political fans, but not the other way around. It simply isn’t enough for me to play my right-wing amigos a Pussy Riot song and all of a sudden they understand feminism.
This week was a massive week in politics and world news, which actually made me nervous before posting this article. Orlando is now home to one of the most brutal firearm-perpetrated massacres since the frontier wars of America. This fact has struck the hearts of patriotic Americans, gun-owners, and anti-gun lobbyists. However, no one has been more saddened by this tragedy than the LGBTIAQ+ community around the globe. This is also coming off one of the most controversial rulings in a rape case ever; Brock Turner received a 6-month sentence for raping a woman. British Labor MP Jo Cox was murdered by Tommy Mair; the gunman allegedly shouted “Britain First,” referencing a far-right political party whose policies are centred around nationalism, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam. I also read, in the same week, about a young woman who courageously poured her heart out about sexual assault in the tertiary education system in Australia. She’s certainly not the first person I have heard of being groomed by a teacher or mentor, and every colleague that I respect hopes she is the last.
The world is in shambles, and no music will ever fix it. That’s not to say that musicians aren’t allowed to have their voices expressed through music. In fact, displaying ones frustration and angst through the arts is why secular music came about in the first place; it was time for music to be separate to the church. At the hands of musicians, so much music has hitched its wagon to political motifs.
I guess music doesn’t necessarily have its own political agenda. It is often attached to one though, and that’s a positive thing. A program like YoWo is a good example. YoWo provides a safe environment for young women to make music together without the competitive masculinity and sexual objectification that young men often inject into the arts. Kendrick Lamar spitting “I don’t give a fuck about ‘no politics’ in rap/My little homie Stunna Deuce ain’t even comin’ back” is voicing an opinion that needs to be heard about violence in and toward the African American community in Compton. And yes, even singing about the Aryan race, no matter how bigoted and totally bizarre it is, is better than lynching people. I’ve introduced lyrics back into the equation, but that’s part of projecting an agenda onto music.
Besides all that, you can align your choices politically with what you listen to. David Bowie was a statutory rapist – if you don’t like statutory rape, don’t listen to David Bowie, or choose to leave your political projections out of music altogether. Eminem has a tonne of controversial lyrics about violence against and objectification of women – don’t like that, time to turn off Marshall Mathers. Miles Davis had drug-induced rage spirals where he’d get violent with his partners. Chet Baker forced his wife to shoot up heroin using the same needle he and a drug dealer used before him.
It’s hard to force an ultimatum of a moral moratorium on the work of badly-behaved musicians, but it’s time audiences considered the role of their politics in their listening choices. It’s like consuming anything else; if it was the same price, you’d choose the free-range eggs and not the cage eggs, right? Or maybe you walk into a restaurant without a care of where any of the produce comes from, with a just-let-me-eat-my-pork-slider attitude.
Musicians have been using their art to convey their political agendas since the advent of secular music. It’s not their responsibility to fix the world with music, even though it might tip a few fence-sitters one way or the other. Artists are respondents to their environment, That’s why it’s great to make music to voice pleasure or disgust in a social environment made up of people who have opposing political views. Just don’t expect music to change anything except itself.