Why Politics and Music Are Like Oil and Water

I’ve been writing on political subjects since 9/11—three polemical books and 400 articles worth. But I’ve done my utmost to keep my poetry free of political themes and pleading, generally the poet’s kiss of death. The classical world made room for politically oriented poetry (cf. the invectives of Archilochus and Alcaeus among the Greeks, Horace and Juvenal among the Romans) but this sprang from a completely different cultural context, and lapsed with time into obscurity. Samuel Butler’s 17th century book-length satiric extravaganza Hudibras dealt with both religious and political subjects—clever and funny, but hardly great poetry. The 18th century loved political/satirical squibs, though with apologies to Dryden, Pope and Swift (and even Peter Pindar), these are scarcely remembered today.

Of course, the political category can be stretched indefinitely—is Yevtushenko’s scathingly tender elegy Babi Yar, for example, “political” or not? I would maintain that it is more a bitter denunciation of human savagery and a memorial to the suffering Jewish people than a political statement. The war poems of Wilfred Owen have an acrid political edge to them, but Owen writes as a humanist under fire, not as a political observer or critic. Admittedly, from time to time some modern poets have managed to align political subjects and poetic excellence (e.g., William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden); however, a successful conflation of this nature is exceedingly rare and prudently to be avoided.

The same stricture applies to politics and music. Aside from military marches and national anthems, music is for the most part not the right medium for political analysis and themes—except indirectly when the singer expresses his or her love of country or commitment to traditional ways of life. Some might be tempted to make an exception for rap, in my estimation a sign of an increasingly degenerate culture and hardly to be taken seriously as music. There are, of course, the oratorios of composers like Mikis Theodorakis, in particular his rendering of Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, which resemble in their way the stolid, monumental architecture of fascist regimes. I consider these equally monumental failures. Obviously, there is a sense in which the political world can be brushed tangentially, by reference to current events, leading in turn to the reinforcement of conservative values, as in Alan Jackson’s heartfelt threnody, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” (featured in the previous article.)

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Third (Eroica) Symphony have a definite political/historical source, but this serves mainly as a pretext for the grand and complex musical architecture. They are not statements but interpretations whose impact is musical, not discursive. Some might claim that the protest songs of the Sixties (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, etc.) and the more recent pop/punk/alternative specimens (Bono, The Gossip, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Green Day, etc.) demonstrate that politics and music can indeed go together, but I would contend that the lyrics of most of these songs are mortifyingly insipid and ideologically faddish and, absent the beat, for the most part not particularly tuneful. They may get over-the-top reviews in the Indie mags but, like rap, they are musically dismal and a symptom of a cultural malady. The one exception to the rule I can think of is Pete Seeger, a bore as an advocate for partisan causes but co-composer of some lovely and memorable songs (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer”).

The Canadian group GY!BE (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), purveyor of ostentatiously bad music that relies on special effects like mind-numbing decibels, near total darkness and garishly spotlit films, argues that,

All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls. It’s what music (and culture) is for, right? To distract or confront, or both at the same time?

Wrong. Music is first and foremost its own reason for existing. Distraction and confrontation are incidental spin-offs, and when music turns to propaganda, solicitation, apologetics or imprecation, it has lost its soul. It is astonishing to contemplate the extent to which the counter-culture has become a philistine, indeed mainstream phenomenon. If it was once truly renegade, marking out a cultural territory distinct from the conventional, it is now drably familiar, coloring strictly between the lines. Its music is based largely on performance—theatrics, really—and after a while it all starts sounding predictable and homogeneous, especially when it is heavy not only on metal but on message. And this chiefly of a social/political orientation.

In fact, the counter-culture has become the new institutional culture; “the long march through the institutions” promoted by such leftwing ideologues as Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse has been resoundingly successful. It has infected every aspect of social, political and cultural life, including the music industry, so that even the presumed iconoclasts among the tribe of punk, rap, folk and rock artists, for the most part, parrot the official liberal/left line of advocacy without pausing to look beneath the surface of traumatic events. They are part of “the cloud” of programmed disinformation that serves the contemporary ideological world.

A typical example is furnished by the hardcore rocker band Stick To Your Guns, who dedicate their new piece of cacophonic rubbish “What Choice Did You Give Us” to “the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and any other family suffering losses at the hands of injustice.” Their “choice” of victims is indicative of herd complacency and self-righteousness since mounting video, documentary and physical evidence has conclusively shown that in each case—even that of Tamir Rice, which is the only problematic instance—those accused of wanton violence, especially against thugs like Brown and Martin, had reason and justice on their side. The band’s “song” is not only offensive, it is also musical garbage and blazons a proud and pleonastic illiteracy—“see it fall into descent” is one of their lines. Ouch! It is not only country “Bro,” as singer/songwriter Collin Raye has said, that is “disposable , forgettable music.” The farrago of sanctimonious juvenilia that disguises itself as music, from protopunk to grunge and glam, often affecting to be socially conscious, is an affront to both common sense and musical sense. It would not pass the far more demanding Froggy test. I would take “Bro” anytime over this grating and self-serving drivel.

Generally speaking, politics and music live in separate worlds whose transits rarely intersect. When they do, the result is more likely than not to be cloyingly didactic and verbally pedestrian. In short, overwrought kitsch.

Real music should not be a vehicle for an ideological program or some drummingly sociopolitical message. The best popular music is at once personal and universal, defined by beautiful melody and heartfelt lyricism. Its subject matter can’t help but touch the world out there and can’t help but convey attitudes and beliefs, but real music is true to itself rather than to any particular agenda. Of all art forms, popular music at its best seems to me the one that most successfully uses the everyday and the immediate to reach for the profound. But it should stay clear of social agitprop and political evangelism if it is to retrain its identity as music, exemplifying Aristotle’s celebrated dictum in Book VIII of the Politics, quoting the fabled poet Musaeus: “Song is to mortals of all things the sweetest.”