Sunday, January 07, 2007

In The Dock: Musicians dabbling in politics

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Musicians dabbling in politics

The case for the prosecution (Swiss Toni)

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 (Ben)

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.

* * * * *

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...


Blogger Damo said...

I agree entirely with Mr Toni on the Live 8/Live Aid stuff and the Band Aid single. And most of what he's written.

Which is why I feel the need to apologise for voting for the defence. I look at the Gallagher brothers being feted - every time you see one of their interviews, it's always followed by effusive praise for how entertaining they are. For what? For standing for nothing. Don't read. Don't be informed. Don't believe that any artist who doesn't shout about his/her achievements has any right to exist.

Ultimately, if you or I try and intervene in what we think is right or wrong, we feel like a voice in the wilderness. Even if we join a march with tens of thousands of people (I did it once - it didn't make the news - nobody caused any trouble). A famous person does it, they get publicity. This can be every bit as excruciating as the prosecution suggests. But ultimately, if you've got that position of influence and don't feel the need to try and exploit it, I think that's a shame.

Mind you, when we talk of Chris Martin...

Anyhow, I'm voting not guilty on the principle of musicians dabbling in politics, but I do actually feel quite bad about doing so, if that makes any sense.

11:34 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

That's an interesting link Damo - Chris Martin flies home between gigs and drives an X5? tut-tut.

I'm not going to go into great detail on Ben's defence, but there was one point I wanted to make. He says that James Blunt isn't an overtly political artist, but actually to some extent he is: "No Bravery" is a song based upon his own personal observations of war, and when he plays it live, it is accompanied by home video footage that he took from the turret of his tank in Bosnia. He gets a lot of criticism for being blandness personified, but here is one subject that he actually knows something about and has seen first hand. Whatever you think of him as an artist, there is something affecting about watching that footage of civilians whose lives have been torn apart by war watching the tanks rolling past.

But enough about Blunt.

One other thing that I was keen to mention but didn't have room for was the recent example of two differing approaches to charity. You know the old story about giving a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime? That came to mind when I heard that where Madonna had chosen to adopt a single child from Malawi, Oprah Winfrey had spent $40m on opening a school for girls in South Africa. I'm not saying that Madonna has done a bad thing, just that Oprah's approach seems to be, well, a whole lot more practical and long-term.

I also didn't get a chance to talk about Bono flying his favourite hat to a gig at the same time as lecturing us about global warming. Every time you click your fingers a child dies? Stop clicking your bloody fingers then, rock star.


12:00 am  
Blogger Damo said...

That's a Jimmy Carr joke and I claim my five pounds.

There are several things I can't stand about Bono (that hat anecdote being one), but ultimately I like U2 and I think the fact that he's not afraid of ridicule is a thing in his favour. For all of the fact that he looks an idiot a lot of the time, he's trying to do a great deal more than most people ever will. Now yes, he has the money, the time, the (cough) contacts and whatnot... but actually the fact that's he's got the money and time is what makes it commendable - he doesn't actually have to do any of it... he could just sit back and enjoy his millions apart from those bits where he's being transported from venue to venue to sing his songs. It's to the unending frustration of the rest of his band that he does it all and it has nearly split them several times... not a career move by any stretch.

(I do hope he's giving away a substantial amount of the money he charges for U2 gigs these days, mind...)

12:20 am  
Blogger Ian said...

By halfway through Ben's argument I was raring to vote in favour of the prosecution (I hate hate hate hate hate the argument that all things are political, it's bullshit, politics are NOT a natural dimension of human existence that all else must be subsumed under - the political is the personal, not the other way around!), but then he had to go and make the lovely and forceful argument that results matter more than intent, etc. And he has a good example to back it up, too.

But then, Toni has some fine counter-examples along the same lines - that is, that the results aren't up to snuff - and I'm back to where I've started. I hate to say it, but I can't vote either way. It's too big. Consider me hung (so to speak).

6:21 am  
Blogger Mark said...

Bono's personal net worth as of 2001 was £225 million : that was five years and two of the highest grossing tours before - by that estimation alone, the other three members of the band would be worth around the same (give or take 70 million), and therefore U2's networth as individuals would be now in excess of £1billion or £1,000 million - dependent upon your point of view. Why doesn't Bono give his money away? Because interest only repayments on the African loans come to around £60 million a day. A DAY.

Pink Floyd donated their extra royalties to charity - not to say that they aren't incredibly rich too. (David Gilmour is the 477th richest man in the fifth most powerful economy in the world with a net worth of approx £600m : so much so he sold a £4m house and gave away the money to a homeless charity).

James Blunt is a cunt. No if's, no buts. I have no sympathy for any soldier if they are not a conscript. I don't mind musicians getting involved in politics, but not behind the barrel of a gun.

Anyway, it's not a Jimmy Carr joke. Jimmy Carr is a notorious plagiarist. He's been known to jot down conversations with runners whilst he's having them, on the occasions they say something funny.

Oh, I almost forgot my point. I'm pro-politics, and anti-Bono. OK.

9:32 am  
Blogger John McClure said...

I was involved in a heated debate over Christmas with some old friends (hence the debate was able to get very heated without anyone taking offence) about whether or not it was OK for George Michael to speak out (as he had done that morning in an interview on Radio 2) about British troops in Afghanistan. On one side of the debate was the view that the very fact that he had a public voice obliged him to use it and say what he thought, on the other side of the debate was the view that using his public voice in such a way was actually an abuse of his fame.

I don't know a great deal about George Michael, so I may be doing him an injustice, but he doesn't strike me as the military sort. I have very little confidence in our generals in war zones around the world, and even less in the military strategists who send them there, but I'll still take their reading of the best course of action over that of someone who, even if he were to get his wish and the troops were to leave Afghanistan, would have to be woken up before they went went, having fallen asleep after one too many spliffs at the wheel of his tank.

I don't think being a musical type should be preclusive to you being politically active, but it's a fine judgement call as to when the motivation to be so stops being about making a difference to the world and starts being about making a difference to your album sales.

As for Live 8 - much and all as I hate to quote Noel Gallagher, I thought his comments in the Observer when David Walliams interviewed him pretty much summed the whole thing up: "I'm not sure about this Live 8 thing. Correct me if I am wrong, but are they hoping that one of these guys from the G8 is on a quick 15-minute break at Gleneagles and sees Annie Lennox singing 'Sweet Dreams' and thinks, 'Fuck me, she might have a point there, you know.' It's not going to fucking happen, is it? Keane doing 'Somewhere Only We Know' and some Japanese businessman going: 'Aw, look at him ... we should really fuckin' drop that debt, you know.' It's not going to happen, is it?"

Having bored you all to death, allow me to cast a vote in favour of the prosecution, irritatingly for the defence, almost entirely because of the use of the word "dabbling". Musicians shouldn't dabble in politics because their voices hold undeserved sway with people too stupid to realise that fame is not the same as goodness or wisdom. They should either leave the politics alone, or get into it wholeheartedly, but not dabble.

11:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't take much for a struggling musician to gain credibility within a politcal arena. But take away the struggle and the likes of Geldof, Madge and Bono can make it a bitter pill for the common to swallow and maybe end up doing more harm than good. Swiss hits it on the head when he says " the process making themselves look foolish and their audience feel patronised."
No, I don't think succesful musicians can 'dabble' and retain credibility.
I think maybe Peter Garrett could be an example of one musician realising that you can't have both and making good of it.

12:22 pm  
Blogger LB said...

I love the notion that if Keane, or Katie Melua get involved (despite the fact that their deeply held beliefs and desire to want to do something may be as strong as anyone elses) that they are laughed at and seen as "dabbling", whereas if someone whose music is largely socially acceptable (Bono, for example), than that's alright then.

Adam Rickett wants to be an MP. Oh how we laugh. Would we laugh if Jarvis Cocker wanted to be an MP? I doubt it. What's the difference? Two pop singers feel strongly enough to want to try and change something. But no, the music snobbery (yet again) takes over.

Anyway, for the reason that Bob Geldof stuck the Boomtown Rats in the middle of the Live Aid bill despite having not put out a decent record for half a decade, I vote for the prosecution. I think it was obvious to everyone that he'd done enough already, but he just couldn't pass over the vanity of playing, could he?

12:27 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

Geldof also played at Live 8 - so a good 20 years since the boomtown rats did anything of note. And he was wearing a really, really terrible hat too.

I also read that the spice girls were all set to reform for Live 8, only to be told by Geldof that they "weren't political" enough...... because people like Pete Doherty, Snoop Dogg and Velvet Revolver are reknowned for their political insights, aren't they?


12:54 pm  
Blogger mike said...

I'm voting with the prosecution. In principle, I have no problem with mixing music and politics - in fact, I wish there was more of it. However, in practice, and give or take the odd Clash/Specials/Costello song, "Free Nelson Mandela", "O Superman", "Shipbuilding" etc (all over 20 years old), the results tend towards the embarrassing, forgettable, pointless, hypocritical and generally execrable.

1:02 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

What a scarily nihilistic viewpoint this could be heading towards. Something like this...

1) We don't like politicians. Politicians bad.
2) We don't like musicians dabbling in politics. They should keep out of what they don't understand, especially if it's really only about raising their profile.
3) So who's going to deal with political matters then? The people. Let's get them involved. Oh hang on, then they'll be politicians too. See point 1.

Someone has to care... don't they?

1:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because someone has chosen a career in music doesn't mean they have to relinquish all political opinions or keep quiet about them. I don't work in politics but still talk about it lots, not many people listen to me as I'm not famous. If I was famous I'd still bang on about what scum the BNP are. Hopefully I'd influence a few young minds whilst at it.

I'm not particulary interested in what car Nelly drives or how many bedrooms Noel Gallagher has in his mansion - a world of apolitical rock stars would be dull as fuck.

Slagging off a band for playing a free gig because their album sales go up afterwards is a bit lame. If Pink Floyd had reformed for a big televised headline gig at Hyde Park and charged 50 quid a ticket their album sales would have gone up anyway. Live8 was a waste of time, but at least their hearts were in the right place. A few extra album sales won't make much difference to Gilmour's bank balance so he must've had some sympathy for the cause.

Charity-hugging celebrities can be a bit embarrassing, but that's easy for us to say in our relatively luxurious surroundings. A shit song that helps feed a few starving mouths or raise awareness of an important issue is better than just another shit song about love.

Not Guilty.

3:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that making music political isn't such a bad thing, especially when it is overtly so. All art is political- point granted- but when the music or a song is intended to protest or protect a specific thing I think it isn't such a bad thing, it can be a very effective medium to make people think- music is an affecting and useful tool, for some a far more useful tool than a speech- so I say if it makes people think about something differently good on it.
When musicians get involved in politics, however, (arguing that writing a political song isn't involved in politics here) it tends to be slightly sickening though this may be because the musicans themselves are slightly sickening. Ultimately I think you have to look at results- not nec. did a medieval ditty change the feudal system but if it makes people genuinely think about a problem and what they can do to change it that's great. Unfortunately most people get side tracked by WHO is doing WHAT (understandably) and not necessarily at what they're promoting.
Will Madonna's adoption promote the act? doubtful
but maybe Meg Ryan's adoption years ago will- now that we see it wasn't a publicity stunt but something more worthwhile.
And I think humility plays an important role in whether people laugh in derision or sagely nod their heads.


voting for the prosecution (mostly) :-)

6:12 pm  
Blogger James MacLaren said...

I am stunned that the prosecution has pulled any votes at all. Not because it was a poor argument - it wasn't - but just because to pull off a prosecution means that so much has gone wrong.

Pardon me while I yank off a list: Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Staples Singers, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jacob Miller (a shit-load of reggae stars, actually), The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Charles Mingus, Public Enemy, KRS-One..... and on and on and on and on......

Sorry, but to neglect mention of these guys is horrendous.

I completely buy the everything is political argument, and that a apolitical rock-star is a supporter of the status quo (not the band - although I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions). And as much as I find Bono, Geldof, Martin, et al... boring as hell, not to mention nauseating, to cut off the link between music and politics would be to deny the massive cultural achievements of all those on the above list, all of whom at some point in the careers have made politics an essential part of their vision.

Could not possibly be more innocent.

6:45 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Truth be told, were I not the counsel for the defence, I can imagine myself being tempted to vote - and perhaps even going ahead and voting - for the prosecution. That's because in many ways I'm a cynic.

But that, I'm afraid, is the easy option. It's easy to sneer at Billy Bragg etc. It's rather harder to look charitably upon the likes of Razorlight - but I was able to on the grounds that relentless cynicism can only be destructive and defeatist.

I don't think anyone would seriously claim that songs really change the world - not in any direct way, anyway. But what they can do is raise awareness, politicise, energise, bring about the conditions in which change can happen. The Pogues' banned single 'Streets Of Sorrow' / 'Birmingham Six', for instance, did not itself unlock the cell doors - but it certainly caused a stir. When governments feel the need to intervene, as in this case and that of 'God Save The Queen', it's evident that music can and does have real political power and impact.

Point taken about the quality of many overtly political songs, Mike (though James does a good job of balancing the scales, reeling off a list of names that should have found room in my defence) - but my point is I think more one of principle. Even if the results are often ridiculous and execrable, musicians should not be prosecuted simply for choosing to engage with politics on or off record.

ST: Would you believe me if I said I was expecting that comeback about Blunt? Well I was! And I don't buy it at all. As Mark said, he put himself in that position to start with by signing up to the army. And secondly, whatever counter-cultural anti-war message there is in 'No Bravery' is subverted / diluted by the appalling conservatism of the form.

8:42 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

Nick the Snick said "If I was famous I'd still bang on about what scum the BNP are. Hopefully I'd influence a few young minds whilst at it."

Would it not be better still to help said young minds come to the same conclusion under their own steam rather than battering them into submission with your own view? Whenever my dad told me to do something "because he said so" it just made me want to do something else just to piss him off.

"A shit song that helps feed a few starving mouths or raise awareness of an important issue is better than just another shit song about love"

I don't think you can make a sweeping statement like that. People bought the band aid single to help the people they saw on their TV screens dying in Ethiopia. But some of that money ended up being used by the Ethiopian government to forcibly resettle millions of people and between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed. That doesn't make Band Aid a bad idea, but it does illustrate that this is a complicated issue and it wasn't a case of "job done" once the singles had been sold and the money raised. And even if we fed every hungry person in Ethiopia, where does that leave the people starving in the Sudan? or China? Or anywhere? They're out of scope of Band Aid - but they're still dying, aren't they?

I wasn't slagging off pink floyd either. Don't mistake the argument I express here with my own personal views.

James said:

"Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Staples Singers, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jacob Miller (a shit-load of reggae stars, actually), The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Charles Mingus, Public Enemy, KRS-One...."

Oh, and that's a bad miss by the prosecution.

Actually, I am a massive fan of Billy Bragg, so I would be one of the last people to dismiss the Bard of Barking and his life's work. Some of the most vital work produced in the last 100 years have been protest songs. I'm just now watching a BBC4 documentary on the post-woodstock music scene, and it's made me think of "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield... to pluck one example out of the air.

I think the key word here is "dabbling"....

And shit Ben... I've fallen for the Blunt bait again!


9:08 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

speaking of Blunt, why does the conservatism of the form dilute the message? You sound like Geldof saying the Spice Girls weren't political enough for Live 8?

Is it only a worthy protest song if it's in a form you like?


9:12 pm  
Blogger LB said...

Oh hello, it's that argument rearing its head again.

And secondly, whatever counter-cultural anti-war message there is in 'No Bravery' is subverted / diluted by the appalling conservatism of the form.

Yep. Because it's a record by someone deemed musically unacceptable, it doesn't count. If *only* it had been Bob Dylan, eh?

11:33 pm  
Blogger LB said...

and I don't agree with this either:

"A shit song that helps feed a few starving mouths or raise awareness of an important issue is better than just another shit song about love"

If I like the love song better, that's the one I'll buy. I thought that was kind of the idea of music, buying the stuff you like and not necessarily the worthy stuff?

11:35 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

(I meant to say that missing out on Dylan and stuff was a bad miss for the defence, not the prosecution.... the prosecution was only too pleased to note their absence)

12:04 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

..incidentally, Bob Dylan may have written some fantastic protest songs, but when I saw him live, I fell asleep. Literally. He was utterly, utterly terrible - and he was promoting a half decent album too. In all the gigs I've been to, that's the only time that's ever happened to me (although I nodded slightly at a Lou Reed gig).

Blunt is clearly a less 'significant' artist than Dylan, but when I've seen him live, he at least managed to keep me awake.


12:09 am  
Blogger Ben said...

ST: OK, using the word "appalling" was a bit of a red herring. It's the conservatism of the form and the political implications of / values inherent in that form that run counter to any lyrical message. The fact that I find the form itself appalling is neither here nor there.

Lord B: No, if the same song had been by Bob Dylan it would still "not count". And no offence, but the accusations of musical snobbery are getting a bit tiresome now. This is a music site, after all - you're going to come across people whose tastes go beyond the mainstream. Lie down with dogs and you're going to get fleas etc etc. You can accuse me of musical snobbery and I can accuse you of inverted musical snobbery all night without us getting anywhere. I was trying to be a bit more constructive than that - not least by finding something to admire in bands that the mainstream adores but I ordinarily loathe.

12:42 am  
Blogger Martin said...

This is a tricky one. I was tempted to side with the defence and its supporters because life and art are inherently political (like it or not) and because of the sincerity and influence of some of the musicians listed above. Despite my musical tastes I count Bono in that list. Sunday Bloody Sunday might not have changed the world but I'd argue that it nailed their colours to the mast.

That, however, leads me on to the flipside of the argument. Unfortunately it's difficult to get away from the word 'dabble', but the downside of musicians being involved with politics and writing political songs is the fact that the majority of Live8-watching, wristband-wearing, "I don't do politics"-dribbling cretins can buy a CD or go to a gig with mildly political overtones and think that they've done something to change the world. And when nothing changes, it's the politicians fault, right? I mean, we did our bit by seeing the Scissor Sisters at Live8 and everything.

Guilty as sin.

1:10 am  
Blogger LB said...

Ben, you might be finding it tiresome, but I think there is mileage in the argument that it seemingly depends who the musician is (and the notional quality of their music) when determining whether they have any "right" or make any impact when dealing with a political issue. You said as much yourself regarding James Blunt.

I'm not sure watching the Kaiser Chiefs at Live 8 is going to solve any of the worlds problems. But neither am I sure that Woody Guthrie has either.

9:31 am  
Blogger John McClure said...

Writing a protest song is not “dabbling in politics”, and therefore the existence of good protest songs is no argument for the defence here. Someone being so moved by something that they want to protest through song is equally valid whether they are protesting a war in Iraq, starvation in Africa, or the fact that their girlfriend ran off with the meter reader.

Dabbling in politics is when, addled by celebrity and failing to recognise that fame isn’t real, you rock up at a G8 summit with your smelly Irish friend and start shouting the odds at heads of state as though selling 170 million albums since 1976 gives you a mandate to speak for the world.

With fame comes a kind of power – fame implies merit, implies that you somehow deserve to be where you are, that you somehow know what you’re talking about. True, given the current proliferation of people becoming famous-for-being-famous, this is less the case than it used to be, but it’s still a factor. Bono gets very agitated about the world’s larger countries abusing their power, but fails to recognise that he is abusing his own.

Don’t dabble in it – do it or don’t. If you want to be a politician, go and get elected. Expose your life to the scrutiny of the press arguing about where you send your child to school, what car you drive, or how many eggs you eat for breakfast. Otherwise, just write the songs and let them speak or fail to. If it moves you that much, it shouldn’t be hard to write a good one.

11:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My comment "A shit song that helps feed a few starving mouths or raise awareness of an important issue is better than just another shit song about love" seems to have been misinterpreted by Lord Bargain.

I mean that both (hypothetical) songs are shit. Neither has any musical or cultural merit. You don't prefer one to the other and won't buy either. But one of them may have saved just one life, so I hate it less.
The 'Band Aid caused more damage than good' argument is a bit debatable, but debate it here I shall not.

And yeah, if famous I would still bang on about the BNP and ID cards and whatever else I feel passionate about - not in an effort to 'batter' the kids 'into submission' (cheers ST) but just to let off steam and let people know my opinions. If a few people decided to look into the subject further and make up their own minds as a result of my waffle then that's good enough for me. If someone is opinionated and mouthy as a 'civilian' why should they change once famous?

12:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, use of the word 'dabbling' does prejudice the argument in favour of the prosecution- and I'm not sure I buy the argument (I know I'm paraphrasing) that just because Band Aid turned out to be a flawed exercise Geldof would have been better off not bothering his arse. Given the complexities of the issues faced, the project could not fail to be flawed. However the fact remains that millions of pounds worth of aid raached starving people, and awarerness was raised to the extent that to this day the global political elite cannot ignore the underlying issues causing famine in Africa.

Of course these same politicians will continue to be put under pressure by movements whose activists (whose leaders, even, by now..) were politicised, as teenage kids, by hearing 'Do They Know It's Christmas' for the first time- and who are now engaged quite fully in the complexities that a three-minute pop song could never hope to address directly. You could make a similar argument, I think, about the long-term effect of that Nelson Mandela song (and it's a better song!).

As may be inferred from the above, I do absolutely buy the argument that all art is to a greater or lesser extent political, even if that just means it is a reflection of the artist's world view- and I have never seen this argument made more persuasively and comprehensively anywhere than by Ben in his submission. So my vote goes, without too much hesitation, for the defence.

(oh, and I'm sorry but I can't resist pointing out to Swiss Toni, re the first of his random examples of so-called 'dabbling', that if their really was only one peasant involved in that revolt then it's really no wonder it was so easily crushed..)

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh bugger, in my sly last-sentence dig at Swiss Toni's grammar I have myself made a cardinal sin with 'their' and 'there'. Well that will teach me to try to be clever!

1:35 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

sorry Nick - perhaps 'battering into submission' was a bit strong!

and jonathan - oops! (and don't worry about pointing it out, I'm a grammar pedant, so I'm now mortified that I can't edit the article to expunge my error!)


2:39 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Martin: "I mean, we did our bit by seeing the Scissor Sisters at Live8 and everything". I try to tempt the jury away from cynicism and then you have to go and say something that amusing...

John: "Don’t dabble in it – do it or don’t. If you want to be a politician, go and get elected". Fair enough as regards dabbling - if you disagree with all dabblers, then vote for the prosecution. But surely you can't be suggesting (as you seem to be) that any musician who seriously engages with politics shouldn't become a politician instead?

Jonathan: As a fellow pedant, I both applaud and chastise you...

12:19 am  
Blogger Del said...

For as long as people sing songs about their own lives, they will continue to be political. 'Common People' is political. 'Brimful of Asha' is political. 'I Will Survive' is political. 'Wannabe' is political. Because they're songs about people and communities and relationships and culture and aspirations.

And just as there is bad music, there can be bad politics, that's life really.

I read that on the day he was finally released from prison, black South Africans joined together to sing the Special AKA's 'Free Nelson Mandela'. A song written and recorded years before, thousands of miles away, in a foreign country, performed by a multiracial band who cared. It was their anthem. It helped change history.

I continue to believe that even in these cynical times, music counts, music can make a difference, for better or worse. Not guilty.

3:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder, if we took another vote replacing "dabble" with, say, "involved", would it change things?

After much more thought that I imagined I'm going with Not Guilty.

* Dabbling isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm a dabbler.

* If people listen to stupid pop stars who make glib statements then that's another issue altogether, based around the importance society puts on these boobs.

* I'm not convinced you can draw a direct line between people listening to a pontificating star and their following that line of thought in their actions. Sure, they take it on board but please give them a little credit. Based on this thread it's clear Bono et al aren't listened to uncritically. They raise issues, sure, but they don't have the last word.

* Even if they get it wrong and/or don't see it through, they've still got ideas out in the arena that those with vested interests might not have wanted being said. I'm no fan of Live 8 but it got people talking. That those issues were allowed to die is everyone's responsibility, not just the musicians.

* Musicians aren't alone is spouting well intentioned but ill informed rubbish.

* As Del says in the comment above this, "political" covers a multitude of things. I love the idea that "I Will Survive" is political.

Sure, I wish a lot of the high profile musicians that dabble in politics would shut up and really think about the details and the charity=publicity thing is odious but, and it's a big but, that's the nature of a democratic free-speech based society. People will say stuff you don't like and you've just got to deal with it.

4:14 am  
Blogger John McClure said...

But surely you can't be suggesting (as you seem to be) that any musician who seriously engages with politics shouldn't become a politician instead?

I think there is one negative too many in that sentence, but semantics and pedantry aside, that's more or less exactly what I'm suggesting - that if a musician wants to seriously engage with politics, he should become a politician and put himself up for election. It's about having a mandate, of the type not afforded by fame alone.

A lot of the comments have ignored "musicians dabbling in politics" in order to retreat to the easy-to-defend territories of "political music", or "musicians recording political songs". The item in the dock is very different to either of those things.

Del pretty much said it (even if he didn't realise he was saying it): "music counts, music can make a difference, for better or worse" - indeed it does and indeed it can, so get back to the recording studio and out of the White House, Bono.

10:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not guilty.

I'd much rather musical folks at least dabbled rather than not. There isn't enough political debate in the day to day, and even if a dabble points just one person towards looking at an issue more in depth then that works for me.

10:52 am  
Blogger Phill said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:04 pm  
Blogger Phill said...

I haven't read all of the comments - but leaving aside the definition of 'dabble', for the music of Rage Against The Machine alone, I have to side with the defence.


5:05 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

John: Yep, one negative too many ("shouldn't"). Still disagree fundamentally with your point, though. Isn't it tantamount to saying "Musicians! Know your place!"

6:45 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Ben: You started it with
'Even I have to concede that Bono’s a prick, though.'

I was wavering in the first place and I'm going to change my mind. Ignoring the definition of 'dabbling' which I'm going to take as any kind of involvement as I'd rather not split hairs over semantics (well, being a pedant I would, but it never seems to help).

The problem I've got is with the people who listen to political music and think that makes them special. Having thought about it that doesn't put the politically inclined musician at fault, and I'm all for a move towards the cerebral.

Oh, and of course there's the Dead Kennedys. And 'Ghost Town.' A last-minute reprieve from me.

11:34 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

ST: Neither the defence nor the prosecution are allowed a vote, I'm afraid - I'd dearly love to register you as voting against your own argument!

That said, Martin, you have a point - in many ways I DO wish that Bono would know his place. Does anyone else get the feeling his main interest is in hanging around with major world leaders and then later dropping the fact into casual conversation? But - following the logic of my own argument - if the consequence of Bono taking a keen and active interest in world politics is to influence a handful of U2 fans along similar lines, then he should be applauded regardless of his motives. Excuse me if I do so with gritted teeth, though...

12:59 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

am I alone in thinking that Bono's sunglasses are, in fact, stealthy reading glasses?

8:17 am  
Blogger John McClure said...

Ben: Yes! That's exactly what I'm saying. You don't see Shinzo Abe wandering onstage at a U2 gig and suggesting to Bono that he might want to change the middle eight of With or Without You, so why is it any less ridiculous for Bono to wander into a G8 summit and make suggestions to world leaders?

My objection to it is that music sales or concert tickets are being used as a proxy for votes - Bono in particular is abusing the fame that he has cultivated through his music to give himself political leverage that he shouldn't have, that he hasn’t earned in any conventional political sense.

I've bought the odd U2 album in my time and been to see them live more than once, but I don't ever remember seeing on the sleeve notes or ticket stubs anything that said that in buying the CD or going to the concert, I was electing Bono as my representative to the G8. As far as I’m aware, Britain as a nation elected Tony Blair to do that.

The fact that Blair is a useless tosser is a whole other argument. He’s a tosser that was given power by an electoral system which works (pretty much) and in which I have faith. Bono was elected by no one. He is confusing the message of fifty thousand people screaming adoration every night – they scream for the music, Bono, not for you – if you don’t think that’s true, try doing the next gig on your own without any songs and see how much adoration there is then.

The argument that his heart’s in the right place and that if it saved one life then it was worth it doesn’t hold for me – first of all, both of those things are arguable, but secondly, what happens when someone whose heart isn’t in the right place (or is judged not to be by the bleeding-hearted liberals of the world) gets in there and starts doing the same?

Want to be a successful rocker? Form a band and sell some records. Want to be a politician? Run for office and get elected.

I suppose the bottom line of what I'm saying is that some things are too important to be dabbled in by people who don't really know what they're doing.

10:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite frankly, most politicians seem to be people who don't really know what they're doing, so a few musicians dabbling can't make it much worse, can it?

Having said that; political songs = often good, musicians spouting off about their latest 'cause' = usually not a pretty sight.

Which I guess means dabbling = bad, jumping straight in at the deep end = better.

Still, since the defintion of 'dabbling' being used seems to be 'any involvement', then it's a not guilty from me - there's just far too many good political songs.

3:58 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

"I suppose the bottom line of what I'm saying is that some things are too important to be dabbled in by people who don't really know what they're doing". That's a very, very dangerous argument, I think, John.

I mean, if we were talking brain surgery then I agree - I wouldn't fancy Bono thinking he could have a poke around inside my head with a scalpel just because he's sold a few records.

But politics is rather different. It's dangerous to suggest that non-politicians of all hues (musicians being just one subset) shouldn't trouble their pathetic little minds with politics and instead should just leave it up to the "professionals". That way despotism lies...

7:27 pm  
Blogger John McClure said...

So you wouldn't trust him to dabble in brain surgery and try and fix your brain (in case he affected your life), but it's OK for him to dabble in the running of the economy of an entire continent (and thereby affect the lives of many millions of people)?

I don't see how it's dangerous to leave that sort of thing to people who know what they're doing. He's not just dabbling in "politics" as some abstract concept that doesn't affect anyone and rates him on a scale according to how much better or worse he is than Neil Hamilton.

Granted, many politicians are rubbish, and someone with half a brain could probably push the paper they push twice as efficiently as they do, but what Bono and his ilk prefer to wade into are issues of global importance that require a more nuanced approach.

Heads of state and economic leaders may not have to "qualify" in the sense that a brain surgeon does, but they have generally served in political office for a long time and are flanked by advisors, researchers and they have resources. More importantly, they are elected; the people of their countries have given them a mandate.

Bono has been a rock star for a long time and is flanked by roadies, fans and Adam Clayton. He has not been elected, and no matter how many records he has sold, he has no mandate to represent anyone.

I don’t doubt his good intentions, nor do I doubt that he tries very hard to understand the complex issues involved, all I’m suggesting is that he isn’t the best placed to do so just because the Joshua Tree was popular.

As for your description of leaving difficult tasks to professionals as the road to despotism – carry on with that line of logic and you’ll prove Godwin’s law.

9:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Afraid I've only had chance to read the arguments and not the subsequent posts.

Bands and musicians who have political ideals, and stick to them, I have the utmost respect for. Particularly when they show allegence to political movements when they get no material gain from doing so.

However, I interpret 'dabble' to mean musicians who convince themselves that they're politicians and realise that since they can influence people with their music, they can probably influence their minds too. Experience has shown how easily this is done.

In these dabbling episodes, things become single issue, arguements are watered down, and impractical flights of fancy become 'burning political issues'. No, Guilty guilty guilty. The prosecution has this one. Well done Swiss Mr T.

And whilst I'm tapping the keyboard, for the record, Live8 was an embarrasment and a farce. And if you are wondering, yes I am coming from the pinko commie left-wing side of things. And no, I'm not going to even pass comment on Bono ... can't be arsed to waste my time writing about him ...

9:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, Bono isn't being allowed to run countries or set policy - he's just a high-profile lobbyist.

He's still a silly little tit, but not a dangerous one.

12:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This one is really hard, especially given the strength of arguments from the original prosecution and defence and the subsequent points raised in the comments. I reckon I side with defence because ultimately, anything that raises political awareness is a good thing. Ideally dabbling would be replaced by well-informed involvement, shite music would be replaced by good, and those dabbling would be motivated by the ‘greater good’ rather than self-interest. But then it's not an ideal world. I completely agree that celebrity buys influence and power and I don’t think celebrities should have to choose between the right to that influence and power or a political viewpoint. It’s the public’s unquestioning consumption of celebrity influence that is problematic; it’s the ignorant masses that need to be condemned.

2:26 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

Do you know what Ben? I'm revisiting this some time down the track, and realising what a bloody good feature this was: two good arguments and a lot of interesting and impassioned commentary. I still prefer my argument, mind....


6:16 pm  

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