By: Eleanor Goldfield
Music and politics have a rather dysfunctional relationship. From pro-government to anti-government to the current back and forth between engaged and underground sneak-arounds, the body politic has cemented a love/hate relationship with music. Looking at our country’s history, the early years were ripe for political music– from our National Anthem and the manifest destiny ditty, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”; politics has danced through people’s lives with catchy and infectious melodies.
“Over There,” a rip-roaring nationalistic marching song, the lesser known WWII classics, “Stalin wasn’t Stallin,’” or “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” – a patriotic musical response to Pearl Harbor – all manifested the inseparable relationship that existed between music and politics during WWII. Indeed; up until WWII – and even during the Korean War – it seemed that music bolstered the political agenda and pushed it along with a musical propaganda that rallied civilians and troops alike.
Then there was cultural a shift. The US was at an international and economic peak. We ruled. DJ Alan Freed gave a name to this new phenomenon: Rock and Roll. Although, the two names had been present predominantly in black music since the early 1900s, the new wave of music sweeping the nation hadn’t been christened until Freed rolled the words onto a packed dance floor in Cleveland.
During the Vietnam War, the contrary occurred with music and politics. Although troops began entering Vietnam as early as 1950, music and culture were preoccupied with drive in movies, the twist and enjoying a youth not characterized by a war, for the first time in a long time. Life was good. The economy, infrastructure, and industry were booming, and so was the population. If anything, music at that time reflected more of what was going on in the bedroom than in Washington. But Vietnam cast a shadow that, compounded with the early demise of some of rock’s shining stars – including Richie Valens and Buddy Holly – made it impossible for music’s fairy tale to continue. Music found politics again. This time however, the relationship was not a happy one. It was disagreeable, and downright hostile.
The youth movement flourished under the banners of peace, love and understanding. The Civil Rights movement pushed forward towards equality while the Anti-War movement pushed for peace and an end to bloodshed. From Gospel to Rock n Roll, music was integral to this; sexually seething as it was with anti-government lyrics wrapped in a hip version of swinging hysteria.
The government couldn’t get away with anything; the public commenting – artistically, physically and emotionally – on just about everything it did. And then change happened. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. As with anything of that magnitude, change was slow in spite of the fact that victory was palpable.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate side story of the music movement claimed a few soldiers of its own. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and others – varying degrees of drug overdoses. It seemed that the music had died again. Drugs and sex took center stage; peace and love were moreso the side effects of erotic trips more than the primary goal.
A disillusioned centennial loomed as the 1970s confronted millions of bitter young people with a government ripe with corruption (that’s another story) Add to this the deaths of a president, a presidential hopeful, and a spiritual and social leader – and the war didn’t so much end as fall apart. Peace didn’t triumph– it limped home along with thousands of physically and mentally maimed troops.
The 1970s and 1980s were a prophetic precursor to today. Music, like culture, splintered into various genres. You had the excess of bands like Led Zeppelin and KISS; the dark birth of metal with Black Sabbath; the angry and wild punk scene. Politics was peppered throughout (War Pigs, Anarchy in the UK) but it was no longer a parallel to the political scene, no longer a cultural trait. In many ways, it was a push and pull between political commentaryon the one hand and, on the other, just plain forgetting about government and politics in order to get back to having a good time: “Nothin but a Good Time,” “Rock n Roll All Night,” “Girls just wanna have fun.”
The 80′s spilled into the 90′s and a similar trend continued. Much of the music turned inward– teen angst became a focal point. Desert Storm wasn’t as interesting as your own torment in a flannel shirt.
The late 90s and early 2000’s were a very difficult time for the music industry. First, they ignored the changing times, clinging to their business model and avoiding dot com conversations. Secondly, the short term money pit became paramount. Artists were not developed– performers were created. Artists and musicians fled underground while cookie-cutter boy bands and performers took to the stage. There was absolutely no political commentary– even the topic of self struggle was pushed aside in the interest of teen crushes, sunshine, and candy.
Today, dark clothes and eyeliner may be picking up some of the bubble gum pop craze but it is still cookie-cutter. The music industry outputs short term money makers in an endless effort to stay afloat, which they ultimately won’t. The internet provides a vast, exciting yet tumultuous outlet for musicians and fans alike. There is political music out there, but it’s not pushing people to act. Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down and countless others write and sing about the current issues, but is that enough? It would have been in the mid-late 60s, but that is not our time. Again, political commentary is no longer a cultural trait; political and social activism are not inherent.
Ironically, humankind seem to cling to the past; not sure how or even if it wants to move forward – as evidenced by the fashion revivals of the 60s and 70s, classic rock stations and kids in Rolling Stones shirts. There is a sense of escapism; of ignoring the present and either hoping for a better future or harkening back to the good old days.
Ignorance and apathy make for a dangerous combination.
Looking back on the events of the past century, a friend made the comment that if 9/11 had happened in the Vietnam era, the public uprisings would have rivaled the Arab Spring. More importantly, I think, it couldn’t have happened. People were simply too engaged. After the 9/11 dust settled, there was no cultural upheaval– at most, a benefit concert or two.
Music and politics are forces of nature. But the people set the tone for both. Ignorant, apathetic people are the harbingers of a corporatized government. A laissez-faire, low-standard populace will be happy with music of the same caliber. Again, the music of the war and civil rights era wasn’t a monstrous success on its own. People wanted it, craved it, and consumed it. Ergo, a political band today can not merely state the facts in a nice melody and expect to see the world shift. There needs to be a call to action. Those who ostensibly serve the body politic are currently obese with pork barreling, corruption and too many hours spent vacationing while ignoring their civic duties. Today the people and the government will wholly ignore a political song. What can’t be ignored is the power of the people, and individuals should choose to utilize it.
Music, like art, can move people. It can touch a part of them that is indescribable, immovable. It can effect change. But to do so, it has to say so.
As a political activist and musician myself, I create music with a message, I believe art can kill apathy. But the message must be two-fold: on the on hand a revealing of the facts and commentary on events and, on the other hand, a call to think, react, and do something!
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