MUSIC by David JamesNews Weekly
Hitman parade: when singers go political
, February 25, 2017
Should musicians get involved in politics? During the recent U.S. presidential elections a spate of pop, rock and even jazz celebrities came to the conclusion that they very much should.
And they certainly did. Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Shakira, R.E.M, Cher, Bono, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, to name a few, queued up to condemn the result of the election. Jazz guitarist John Scofield declared that the whole situation was a “nightmare”, and that Trump was unqualified to lead any country.
Alex Ross, the peerless music critic for The New Yorker, had this to say:
“What is the point of making beautiful things, or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant? Those who work in the realm of the arts have been asking themselves that question in recent weeks. The election of Donald Trump, and the casual cruelty of his presidency thus far, have precipitated a sense of crisis in that world, not least because Trump seems inclined to let the arts rot.”
In one sense, musicians should be as qualified as anyone else in a democracy to comment on politics. In exactly the same sense, they have no special status; they are just one opinion among many.
But that is not how their statements are routinely understood. As celebrities – and a cynic might suggest that making anti-Trump pronouncements is probably a good marketing ploy – they not only capture more attention than ordinary voters, but there is also an implication that their views carry extra weight.
At first glance, there is little wrong with artists getting involved with politics; many great literary artists have been deeply political. Lyricists and social commentators, such as Springsteen and Young, have some legitimacy in making political statements.
But the case becomes weaker when we get to those who are only performers. Katy Perry, who sings about kissing girls and waking up in Vegas, or Miley Cyrus, who vocalises tortured similes such as coming in ‘like a wrecking ball’, do not seem obviously qualified for incisive insights into the body politic.
With musicians who do not write words the situation becomes even more problematic. Music does not refer to anything concrete. Ask a hundred people what a piece of music is “about” and there is likely to be a hundred different answers.
There have been instrumental musicians who intended a political purpose with their music, but that is only known when they reveal it verbally. Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was dedicated to Napoleon; but without the dedication any connection with the French Emperor would not have been known.
Russian composer Dimitry Shostakovich has been extensively examined to see if he “sold out” under the pressure of being scrutinised by Stalin and his thugs, but a moment’s reflection should reveal that it is a task as absurd as the Soviets’ examining his music for political correctness in the first place.
If musicians do not, in their art, refer concretely to the world it suggests that they are in no special position to comment on it and there is no particular reason to listen to their political ideas: unlike, for example, W.B. Yeats’ in his great poem, Easter 1916, a brilliant interrogation of the complexities of violent resistance.
Which leaves us with the question posed by Ross’ extreme reaction, which is typical of what is happening in some sections of America: in these (allegedly) dark Trumpian times is there any point “making beautiful things”?
This rests on flimsy, even ridiculous, grounds. For one thing, it is highly questionable that the emphasis in modern classical music is to aspire for beauty. Much of it seems to be deliberately ugly; the aspiration is to achieve other aims, such as profundity or controversy.
Leaving that aside, why would the election of a politician considered repugnant imply the end of the creation of beauty? Wouldn’t a more defensible response be to continue to create beauty in order to shine a light in dark times? Does stopping beauty creation have a political impact? And what is the connection between beauty and politics anyway?
The answers are far from obvious. Yet if the political rationale is opaque, it is clear that politics is involved in the anti-Trump response: the politics of class. What Ross is really saying is that the liberal, upper-middle class community with whom he identifies lost the election.
It may not be much of a political argument, but it is a symptom of deep political divisions. The arts are increasingly mired in politics and the results are not edifying.
David James is a Melbourne journalist, writer and musician.