Colliding Spheres: Should Artists Keep Their Noses Out of Politics?

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Bert McCraken of The Used at the band’s April 27th show at Playstation Theater. Photo by Hailey Nuthals.

Hailey Nuthals, Highlighter Editor

Life imitates art, or art imitates life. One way or the other, they’re symbiotically influential. It is hard to have one exist outside of the other. As such, it’s hard to find art – specifically, music – that exists outside of the reach of political opinions. There are, of course, artists that try their best to evade the reach of public debate in their music, but for the most part, you can dig politics out of anything. (Consider Ariana Grande’s video for her single “Dangerous Woman,” in which she takes hold of her own sensuality and sexuality in a way that defies the usual objectification of women in music videos in thoroughly complex ways.)

Celebrities have such a pervasive effect on our culture that their political involvement is unavoidable. The intentionality of their political influence, however, has long been a source of debate. Since these public figures have such a platform to share their voice, are they obligated to say something important?

Some bands find the habit unavoidable. The Used, an emo punk rock group from Utah, is currently on tour to celebrate their 15-year anniversary. The group is known for their tendency toward strong political statement – the last tour saw stage settings including towering stacks of televisions plastered with the heads of political figures whose eyes had been scratched over, and their latest tour featured graffiti-ed mannequins placed throughout the stage with phrases like “Now you’re going to have to ask” and “It tears me up.”

Their lead singer Bert McCracken goes even further – at the New York stop for their tour, he was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the sickle and hammer that have come to represent the Communist party. As he entered the stage, he picked up his mic stand, decorated with a white bandanna, and wove it around like a flag. Within just the first three songs, comments along the lines of sticking it to people who try to silence your voice and legalization of marijuana had already snuck their way into the show.

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The Used guitarist Justin Shekoski at Playstation Theater, surrounded by graffiti-ed mannequins. Photo by Hailey Nuthals.

It’s been argued before (even by me) that punk is the genre of political statements. But in a nation that prides itself on freedom of expression, and in an age where politics are creating a frighteningly large divide in the increasingly bipartisan population, punk is no longer the only genre throwing its two cents into the ring. Even artists as prolific as Beyoncé are taking stands for their beliefs; the pop queen’s latest album “Lemonade” is undeniably not just giving two cents but throwing wads hundred-dollar bills in the public’s face.

While it’s been argued that the politics of “Lemonade” are “too little too late,” consider this: the world has never been looking harder at Beyoncé, and at black women, than they are now. This is a moment of turmoil in almost every sphere. “Lemonade” doesn’t even have to be about Jay-Z; whether he’s the villain of the album’s story is irrelevant. The key is that Beyoncé is making a statement.

Stretching back to Michael Jackson’s video with Brazilian group Olodum for “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” and even further back to Stravinksy’s “Rite of Spring,” which caused riots at its premiere, musicians have taken it into their hands to sing about more than just breakups, and rightly so. As it goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Just as teachers are tasked with educating students, anyone who has a group of people listening to them on a regular basis should be aware of what they’re saying. The Used, as evidenced by the fact that they even have a dedicated enough fan base to do a 15-year anniversary tour, recognizes their power. Beyoncé recognizes her power. Every artist who’s ever advocated for veganism or announced their support of one presidential candidate or the other or spoken up about House Bill 2 recognizes their power.

In a democratic society, it is easy to have one’s voice drowned out by the millions of other voices also exercising their freedom of speech. Musicians and artists at large need to recognize their positions of influence. Maybe Halsey doesn’t have to pen a ballad about the use of solitary confinement in prisons, but the fact is, holding influence holding political power. Critics like Piers Morgan who say that “[they] never like it when artists go all political” should consider the very political nature of their own words and influence.

Long story short: all musicians are political, whether they (or we) like it or not. It’s just not always as obvious as smashing a security camera with a baseball bat.

 

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