Volume 94, Issue 38
Tuesday, November 18, 2000
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
In bed with politics
Arts & Entertainment Editor
The other day I was on the bus and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy with a shirt that professed the following: "Keep your politics out of my music."
Although my first reaction was to ask the guy for an explanation, I decided to hold back and think about what the statement actually meant.
Keeping politics out of music would be a vastly difficult proposition since one of music's most essential qualities is its ability to combine political commentary with a unique sound. Even instrumental music can be political because, at its core, it was inspired by something.
Consider the last half of the 20th Century. The infusion of rock 'n' roll into the staunchly conservative culture of the 1950s set tongues wagging, especially when Elvis Presley shook those slender hips or when folksinger Pete Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
By the 1960s, protest music took over the airwaves while the protests themselves simultaneously took over the streets. Virtually every major hit of that era had some sort of political slant to it. Think of Joan Baez dedicating "Drugstore TruckDriver" to California Governor Ronald Rea-GUNS or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's, "Ohio," written for the students killed at Kent State by the National Guard in 1970. In truth, Bob Dylan was as political as Richard Nixon.
By the 1970s, African Americans joined the fray, venting their frustrations through a trend labelled "Blaxploitation." It provided artists like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown with an opportunity to challenge mainstream society's subjugation of its black populace.
A decade and a half later, artists from almost every stripe banded together to record, "We Are The World," in hopes of doing a good deed for the starving people of Ethiopia.
The past 10 years have seen musicians take an even more unprecedented role in the political realm. Consider Madonna posing topless for MTV's Rock the Vote or Barbra Streisand performing at President Clinton's 1992 inauguration.
Further, think of U2's Bono, who last fall spoke in front of the United States Congress asking them to eradicate the Third World debt. Or Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, whose continued struggle on behalf of the citizens of Tibet has grown into an annual concert attended by thousands.
Still, politicians have returned fire. Well-known political heavyweights have blamed an assortment of rap artists for the violence and deviance that plagues American society. Tipper Gore, wife of democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, has been outspoken in this debate, demanding the placement of parental advisory labels to inform parents of the content of an album.
For better or for worse, musicians use their enormous clout to speak up politically, while politicians continue trying, as they always have, to restrict artistic ventures that don't suit their agendas. Both, it seems, fail to realize it is impossible to keep politics out of music when the two make such practical bedfellows.
Apparently, so does that guy on the bus.
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