Think of a social and/or political movement, consider the most “out there” position your mind and research can allow, and you can guarantee that there is music attached to it. As we said in the first of these columns last week: All religions have their music too. For better or worse, everybody’s free to enjoy all of it.
Regularly, we veer towards music that aligns closely with our own beliefs and opinions. This is most overt when it comes to religion—Christians will listen to Christian music, Muslims to Islamic music, and so on—but it’s also often true when it comes to politics. Often, but not always. And that raises a couple of interesting questions:
Should we listen to music that espouses political or social opinions that we don’t agree with?
And what if the music isn’t political at all but we know full well that the musician making it is a political polar opposite?
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs And he likes to sing along
and he likes to shoot his gun But he knows not what it means.”
– Nirvana, “In Bloom”
When Nirvana formed in 1987, part of Seattle’s blossoming underground rock scene, they took to the role of outsiders because they (and Kurt Cobain specifically) didn’t feel like they had a choice. Bullied and ridiculed at school by the “cool kids” and athletes, the periphery of society was comfortable for them. So when Nirvana became one of the biggest bands in the world in 1991, thanks to the release of Nevermind, and every frat boy in the land was slam dancing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the songwriter didn’t know how to handle it. The lyrics of “In Bloom” were weirdly prophetic. Cobain knew that people he had nothing in common with, most likely the ones who gave him hell at school while uttering homophobic slurs, were now enjoying the very songs he created in order to deal with those experiences.
“I would say, imagine where we’d be if that hadn’t happened.”
– Tom Morello
Nirvana are far from the only band that have been through that sort of thing. Shortly afterwards, one of the most overtly political bands in recent history, Rage Against the Machine released their self-titled debut masterpiece. And as we all know by now, if the band saw an injustice they would stand up and speak/rap/yell about it. But, much like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Killing In the Name Of…” attracted an audience who cared little for the lyrics. What they wanted to do was drink beer and slam hard into each other. For songwriters who care so much, that’s gotta sting.
“I would say, imagine where we’d be if that hadn’t happened,” Tom Morello of RATM told this writer recently. “There are two constants. Rage formed in the Bill Clinton era and we were fired up about shit that was going down then. The two constants are that there’s going to be injustice, people who will put profit before sanity or the health of the planet. The other constant is that there’s going to be resistance to injustice. In music, there are a lot of links in that chain.”
Morello, then, is ok with people he’s diametrically opposed to listening to his music, because he wants to reach as many people as possible with his message. Most of them will ignore the lyrics but, hey, he might get through to one.
A right winger ignoring the lyrics to RATM songs and using them as another soundtrack to their own night of chaos is easy to imagine. It’s harder to imagine a progressive putting on some music with a conservative message and saying, “Hey, I just like the melody.” Clearly, if a song is preaching hate (we’ll get to white power punk and National Socialist Black Metal in a future column), then that mustn’t be ignored.
But it can also be difficult to get past views expressed in lyrics that are even slightly nationalistic and/or patriotic. Much like many conservatives embrace Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” because they take it at face value as a patriotic call to arms, many liberals shun it for the same reason. In fact, the song is the Boss’ frankly brilliant commentary on the hypocrisy of patriotism and the futility of war.
“Come back home to the refinery Hiring man said ‘son if it was up to me’ Went down to see my V.A. man He said “son, don’t you understand”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Born In the USA”
If a musician does choose to express their political opinions through their music, and we understand it correctly, then it might make it easier for us to choose what we will and will not listen to. But what if they don’t? What if we very much enjoy the music of an artist, and later find out that their views are diametrically opposed to our own?
This is where we have to draw our own lines. A band such as Avenged Sevenfold, for example, write songs about demons and nightmares—all manner of ghosties and ghoulies. But in the past, they’ve openly expressed conservative views and admitted to being republicans. Many of us on the left felt bitter about that and felt icky about listening to them. So it was perhaps surprising when the Prophets of Rage (three of RATM, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, etc.) announced a tour with Avenged Sevenfold. The tour never happened because of Avenged frontman M Shadows’ vocal issues. But still, it seemed like a weird pairing.
“They’re Orange County lads, and they formed that band when they were very young,” Tom Morello told this writer. “I’m not going to pretend to speak for them, but I know 10 years ago or whatever, there may have been one or two quotes that were pulled. But I was looking forward to that tour, because in a way it was going to be a gathering of the tribes. There’s nothing wrong with having people of differing musical or political opinions in the same arena. I think that’s a great opportunity.”
That’s a wonderful mindset, and maybe it’s something we can all aim towards. It’ll be very difficult, in this current fractured climate. But again, we all have to draw our own lines.