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This week's subject: Musicians dabbling in politicsThe case for the prosecution
You have to wonder why musicians get tangled up with politics at all. Perhaps it stems from a deep-seated desire to "make a difference", or maybe it is motivated purely out of arrogance, insecurity and an insatiable need for publicity. The simple truth is that when musicians dabble in politics, they generally end up trivialising the issues they espouse, in the process making themselves look foolish and their audience feel patronised.
We’ll get to Geldof and Bono in a minute, but let’s first have a look at a few random examples:
'The Cutty Wren' is written to protest against feudal oppression in 1381. It may have been a potent earworm, but the Peasant’s Revolt was crushed and feudalism survived for a few more centuries.
Beethoven removes the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte from his Third Symphony in 1804 in protest at the Frenchman crowning himself as emperor. Bonaparte is no doubt devastated, but somehow manages to cope with the disappointment.
'99 Luftballons' released by Nena in 1983 in protest at nuclear proliferation. The Cold War continues unabated.
Billy Bragg forms Red Wedge in 1987 to try to get Thatcher’s Conservative Party out of Government. The Tories win a third term and everyone is a bit embarrassed. Labour finally win an election in 1997, presumably thanks in large part to D:Ream.
In 2004, Springsteen, REM and others team up on “Vote For Change”, aiming to get Bush out of government. Bush wins, perhaps thanks to Ted Nugent’s support.
When we talk about musicians dabbling in politics though, we are drawn inexorably to Live Aid. I am tempted to argue that it is inadmissible here as it wasn’t intended to be overtly political, but focused instead upon the famine in Ethiopia. Ultimately though, I think we simply cannot ignore it because, consciously or not, it made a huge political statement. Quite how effective that statement was is another matter. Live Aid raised about £50m on the day and about £150m in all. That’s a lot of money, although it looks a whole lot smaller when you consider that U2 are between them thought to be worth more than £500m. The Band Aid Charitable Trust has also acknowledged that they don’t know how much of that money was given to organisations controlled or influenced by the ruling military junta in Ethiopia, and was subsequently used to fund enforced resettlement programmes, under which millions of people were displaced and around 100,000 killed. Bono remarked that it was better to spill some funds into nefarious quarters for the sake of those who needed it, than to stifle aid because of possible theft. I disagree. Would it not be better still to be more careful where you distributed your money in the first place?
What about the image that Live Aid presented of Africa to the world?
Africa is "a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears ... nothing ever grows [and] no rain nor river flows
As we watched images of starving children soundtracked by The Cars, Andy Kershaw was reluctantly moved to comment that “Geldof appears not to be interested in Africa's strengths, only in an Africa on its knees.
Live 8 was worse. This time, the aim was not to raise money but to try to pressure the leaders at the G8 into “Making Poverty History”. 38 million people signed up to the “Live 8” list and the G8 leaders pledged to double aid to Africa by $25bn a year… but the momentum slipped away and Christian Aid was moved to remark that the Gleneagles summit of the G8 has been “a sad day for poor people in Africa
”. Geldof, of course, hailed the event as a great triumph, but the reality was an ill-conceived idea and the money pledged was less than a drop in the ocean. $25bn sounds like a lot of money, but again, it’s all relative: in the wake of hurricane Katrina, the US congress released $50bn in aid, rising to $200bn… and the G8 quibbled over $25bn.
For all the worthy noises made at Live 8, what happened as soon as the shops opened on Monday morning? Artists involved in the concerts saw their album sales rocketing: Pink Floyd by 1343%, The Who 863%, Razorlight 335%... but I’m sure they did it out of the kindness of their hearts and never expected to profit from the worldwide exposure…
Musicians involvement in politics? Full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.The case for the defence
I must begin by complaining about the terms in which the topic is phrased. Specifically, it’s the word “dabbling
” that I object to, suggesting as it does both amateurishness and a tepid, half-hearted and possibly even feigned enthusiasm. Naturally, then, such a term is likely to prejudice you, the jury, into siding with the prosecution’s case. A more neutral term like “engaging
” would have been preferable. All the more galling, then, that I was the one who idly suggested the topic and the wording in the first place…
Anyway, as I see it, there are two different ways in which musicians can be seen to engage with politics: either through their music or via some other channel that is extraneous to their music. Let’s refer to these as “on record” and “off record” respectively, and tackle “on record” political engagement first.
Say “All art is political
” to a student of critical theory and he or she is likely to groan at you, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. In both its medium and its message, all art – including music – encodes a set of political values; those values are the result of the artist’s choices. Of course, art can be more or less politicised, or at least more or less overtly politicised – James Blunt’s music is less overtly political than that of The Clash, say; but the fact remains that it espouses a particular worldview.
In this extremely narrow sense, then, the very notion of musicians “dabbling
” in politics is nonsensical; they are political whether they like it or not. More pertinently, far from mistrusting bands whose politics are overt, I’m automatically suspicious of those who deny that politics has anything to do with what they do; you know, the “It’s all about the music, maaaan
” brigade. It’s not, and that’s almost always shorthand for “We’re a bunch of conservative dullards
”. Art isn’t simply escapist fluff created in a vacuum, a pleasant diversion from the real world; it is born of that world, for that world, so why shouldn’t artists openly acknowledge that in what they do? If that excuses politically-minded lyrics which are crass, or protest songs which are ill-conceived, then so be it. Even if it excuses the existence of The Levellers, then fair enough – though I reserve the right to agree they should be prosecuted for other crimes
Bands are however more often accused of “dabbling
” in politics “off record”. For a group like Fugazi, “off record” political engagement is as important as “on record”, if not more so. For them, it’s essential to practice what you preach. Their strongly held political principles are a significant factor in all collective decisions, determining everything from the venues they book to the benefit gigs they play and the ways in which their Dischord imprint operates. As such, they could hardly be accused of “dabbling
”, so let’s take two rather different examples.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin routinely takes to the stage with “Make Trade Fair
” scrawled on his hand. As a result, he’s been widely ridiculed, both by those who regard the overt support of a charitable organisation as naff or “uncool”, and by those who conversely see it as an act of cynical opportunism. And yet this is not merely a superficial fashion statement. Martin is an active and vocal supporter of the campaign
, and has travelled to Ghana and Haiti to learn more and promote the message. He can be accused of many things (and, as Swiss Toni knows, he often is when I’m concerned…), but a political dabbler he is not.
But what about Razorlight? A dreadful band fronted by one of the most irritatingly egocentric men in rock – sure. But what of their endorsement of Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign
? On their recent UK tour, information videos were screened between the bands and postcards handed out to punters. Knowing Johnny Borrell as we do, it’s easy to suspect him of being rather less concerned about global warming and the environment than he has professed to be, and rather more concerned to align himself with Thom Yorke and a “cool” movement.
But whatever his motives, the simple truth is that the fans’ response was tremendous. Like Martin, Borrell has helped to raise the profile of a very good cause by politicising his public. The end justifies the means, and that’s why I think that “off record” “dabbling
” can be defended too.
Even I have to concede that Bono’s a prick, though.
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Thanks to Swiss Toni. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...