The very nature of politics is, like music, rooted in conflict and harmony. The heart of music is the interplay of the physical and the mental, as the compromise between them forms a cohesive whole. Compromise is also the heart of the political process, trying to find common ground and consensus solutions to problems of society through open communication. Both seek to inspire their targets, and both have made great use of the other to advance their ideas. With a hotly contested election on the way this November, we thought it would be a fine time to examine the way music and politics have become strangely entwined.
The relationship between music and politics has existed for centuries, sometimes harmoniously, and other times not as much. Historical records are full of examples of songs that laud the achievements of nations, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt. On the other hand, however, songwriters have turned to their craft when confronted with social and political unjustness, and give birth to songs that seek to shine a light on the perceived inequities of the day. From protest songs to voter campaigns, campaign rallies to musical endorsements and musicians campaigning, there’s been no shortage of love between music and politics.
As a form of communication, music has always been used to express opinions about matters of the day. I’m sure the first caveman quartet did a scathing tune about Ogg’s lack of leadership in the “Firegate” debacle. There have been plenty of songs, jingles mostly, endorsing individual candidates and causes, but it seems Rather than turn this into a history lesson, we’ll focus on some of the more modern songs that have shaped the musical political climate. That said, we need to acknowledge a true pioneer of the American musical protest movement, Woody Guthrie.
This Oklahoma born singer-songwriter-poet sang in a plain, dead pan drawl that perfectly captured the message he was speaking of fighting to keep America free. His guitar often spoke the words for him, with the words “This Machine Destroys Fascists” emblazoned across it. It was a powerful and prescient commentary on the ability music has to rally people to a cause, and Guthrie set a precedent many would follow on the years to come.
Before Guthrie’s rabble rousing, popular music was very pro-establishment, pro-government and even pro war. Though some singers like Billie Holiday managed to sneak issues of civil rights and institutionalized racism into the conversation through songs like “Strange Fruit,” those were rare occasions. For much of America’s history up to the early fifties, music was primarily a tool of patriotism. Our own national anthem features evocative imagery of war, bursting bombs and gallantly defended ramparts. Using uplifting arrangements and calls to national pride, many a man found himself standing in line at the recruitment office, as radio speakers called for them to join the fight “Over There.“
Most of the sixties saw America at war, and the music world was the symbolic centerpiece of an anti-establishment movement. The promise of the beginning of the decade was silenced by gun fire, and the effect that constant strife had on the psyche of the budding musicians across the nation was immeasurable. Voices were raised from every gender, every race asking for equality, freedom and peace. These songs made an unprecedented leap to the top of the charts, caliing for the people of America to let go of their old ways; to learn and grow. Bob Dylan put it best in his classic “The Times They Are A Changin‘”
The tumult of the sixties was a direct result of a generation born from the returning soldiers of the second World War. The horrors endured by their parents turned them against the conflict, but after an entire decade of railing against the military industrial complex and unjust wars abroad, a sense of disillusionment came over the country and the era of the protest song slowly faded away. It’s no wonder that John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” became such an anthem at the end of a difficult decade.
The American counterculture war veterans were slowly getting lost in the so called “Me Decade” of self indulgence that was the seventies. Though the flames of protest seemed to cool after the conflagration of the sixties, the fires still burned bright overseas. In England, a wave of anarchic music gave voice to the growing sentiment of disillusionment and distrust among the increasingly angry youth. Jobs were scarce, especially for the young and untrained. The combination of youthful energy and lack of any positive release turned the country into a simmering stew of resentment. Protesters took to the streets, as an increasingly radical populace carried out acts of building aggression towards the elite. Punk rockers the Sex Pistols were born of that rage, and vented it in their seminal hit “God Save The Queen.”
Check it out below:
The eighties were a dark time for America, politically. Populist Republican Ronald Reagan had steamrolled into the Oval Office over Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory. Carter’s presidency was beset by scandals like the Iranian hostage situation, gas shortages and public perception of him as indecisive. Reagan’s simple, jingoistic message of recapturing America’s strength and charismatic, fatherly demeanor covered up his indifference to anyone outside of the middle and upper classes. From his slow reaction to the AIDS outbreaks, allowing the CIA to help worsen the drug epidemic in the inner cities to his economic policies that drained the nations social programs to the needy, the Regan White house did little to help a large portion of his constituents.
As part of his “War On Drugs,” police forces became increasingly militant, sentences for drug crimes became longer and longer and groups like N.W.A spoke the words that had been on the minds of so many for so very long.
N.W.A spawned a new wave of hip hop, with socially aware and often violent lyrical content. Suddenly the people of the inner cities had a voice for protest, and the music was also incredibly popular. Hip Hop and Rap brought issues of race to the forefront in a new and viceral way. Thanks to it’s appeal across racial lines, it’s almost impossible to truly judge how important the impact of bringing these topics to the national discussion. But not all music needs to be for or against something for it to have a profound political impact.
Music For Voting
In 1990 Rock The Vote, a new, non partisan non-profit was founded to promote voter registration among the America’s youth. Their marketing snazzy blend of big name band and artist endorsements and political activism worked well out of the gate with their debut PSA featuring Madonna in dressed only in her underwear and the American flag. Check it out below:
With the most popular artists of all genres sharing the same message, a new generation realized that they could be a huge part of the process as well. In 1992 President Bill Clinton was elected, after garnering a large lead among young voters, thanks, in part, to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which gave potential voters a chance to register when they visited the Department Of Motor Vehicles. In 1999 they helped voters across the nation once again, helping create an online registration tool that anyone of age could easily use. This sort of bipartisan effort to make it easier for folks to do their civic duty is a noble example of the spirit of music being used to help society as a whole.
In 2004, Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein and his friend Andy Bernstein founded the nationwide non-profit HeadCount. In many ways, HeadCount was the next logical step forward along the path started by Rock The Vote. This new activist group takes registering to vote to the people, setting up shop at concerts and festivals around the nation. Keeping themselves non-partisan, HeadCount has set up registration booths at concerts and festivals all across the country, using an ever growing army of volunteers who see the value of a politically vocal population. Their methodology is a mix of old school registration booths and canvassing crowds with clipboards and more modern techniques like hosting concerts, on line media campaigns and television ads. The end result, over 300,000 voters registered, is an achievement all involved are proud of.
The good work done by HeadCount hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the music community. The list of artists who have acted as spokespeople and opened space at their shows for the organization reads like a who’s who’s of the music world. A diverse array that includes main stream acts like Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and Dave Matthews stand alongside Brownstein’s contemporaries from the jam scene like Phish, String Cheese Incident, and Umphrey’s McGee. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir was an early advocate for HeadCount, appearing in ads, urging his audiences to participate in the election process, and now he serves on the board of directors.
Here’s fun interview from Marc Brownstein early in the life of the now 12 year old HeadCount:
On The Campaign Trail (Today)
Music is an vital part of every campaign stop. Every aspect of an election campaign stop is planned down to the tiniest detail. Candidates and their handlers plan not just what they’re going to say, but HOW they’re going to say it, what clothes they’ll be wearing and exactly what they’ll be standing in front of when they share the message.
From marching bands to rock anthems, candidates from every party seek to stir up the passions of potential voters using music. Any advertising executive will tell you that the right song played at the right moment will subliminally evoke emotions of trust and empathy in the listener. Music is such a key element of swaying the hearts and minds of people that quite often campaigns will rush to play songs they don’t have permission to play. It seems like every election cycle features at least one artist having to stop an overzealous candidate with opposing views to stop using their material at their events.
Republican party front runner, real estate developer and reality TV personality Donald Trump is no stranger to stepping on toes. His brash and arrogant style and controversial proposals have fiercely divided the country, and in his efforts to draw more people to his constituency, he’s made a few enemies, as well as a surprising friend or two. Adele, one of the world’s biggest recording artists in the world, joined Neil Young, REM and Aerosmith in asking Trump campaign to stop using their music at his rallies. In the past, image conscious candidates would quickly back down when artists would make such requests, but not Trump. His response was pure him…he continued using her material for a few more days, presumably turning up the volume while giving them a one fingered salute.
Not all of the artists who’ve made the music Trump’s been using are upset, mind you. While Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider has said he doesn’t necessarily like his policies, he does enjoy Trump’s confrontational style, and has no problem with his band’s song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to fire up the crowd.
While some current candidates are getting blasted by bands for misappropriating songs, one candidate is experiencing an unprecedented wave of vocal endorsements from the music community: Democrat Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ message of “Democratic Socialism” has struck a deep chord among a wide variety of performers, from stand up comedians to bands from every genre. In an open letter endorsing Sanders’ candidacy over seventy different artists praised the candidate and openly called on their fans to strongly consider making him our next president. It’s a testament to the across socio-political lines appeal of Sanders message that members of Phish, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Meshell Ndegeocello and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros all agree on who should be our next president. Maybe they’re just supporting him because he’s one of their own.
Here’s Sanders joining Vampire Weekend onstage in Iowa to sing Woody Guthrie‘s “This Land Is Your Land.”
The other Democrat in the race, Hillary Clinton has also grabbed some star power musical endorsements, though. Names like Barry Manilow, Madonna and Barbara Streisand may look odd next to Kanye West, Beyoncé and Katie Perry, but politics makes for strange bedfellows. With the youth of our nation more politically engaged than ever, it seems like having relatable music tastes is something of a priority for most candidates.
The Republican side of the campaign quite out of touch with the voters when it comes to music. Iowa caucus winner Ted Cruz can’t even name a band he likes, Probably because he says he stopped listening to new music after 9/11. Narcoleptic neurosurgeon Ben Carson strangely has hyper energetic Kid Rock backing him. Jeb Bush had Toby Keith riding with him until he found himself bucked out of the saddle. On the brighter side, long shot candidate Governor John Kasich has vowed to reunite the members of Pink Floyd for a few songs!
All of these efforts by artists to speak their minds politically is powerful force. Their millions of fans can be shown just how powerful their vote can be. If musicians and their work can use their influence to bring more people into the political process then we all benefit. It’s important that the voice of ALL the people be heard. I mean…what’s the worst that could happen…
Musicians Running For Office
…CRAP! Lucky for America, musicians have a terrible track record in getting themselves elected to a public office. In Kanye’s case, he’s given debate opponents so much ammo from his Twitter account alone that any potential run is doomed from the start. For every instance of a rocker turned candidate winning, like Sonny Bono in his bids to become Mayor of Palm Springs, California and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, there’s dozens of other, less successful examples.
2 Live Crew‘s misogynist front man Luther Campbell ran for Mayor of Miami. Voters seemed to be more worried about his inflammatory music than his promise to clean up the schools and housing projects. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic ran for the clerk’s office of Wahkiakum County of Washington State as a member of an imaginary political party. He later claimed it was a stunt to draw awareness to voting irregularities, but after his famous “Catch a bass with his face” move on MTV Video Music Awards, who really knows with him.
For all those large scale failures, when a musician seeks a relatively smaller office, they seem to have far better luck. Martha Reeves ditched the Vandellas and stopped “Dancing In The Streets” long enough to serve on the City Council of the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan. And Jerry Butler, soul singer and inductee to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is Cook County Illinois’ longest serving commissioner, chairing and sitting on dozens of vital committees since his election in 1985. It seems that in the few instances of a musician managing to gain the office they sought resulted in a diligent urge to serve the public good.
Candidates in other nations seemed to have faced the same kind of luck as their stateside counter parts. Nigeria’s Afrobeat legend and human rights activist Fela Kuti attempted to run for president of his nation in 1979, but found any attempts at a viable candidacy blocked by angry power brokers and establishment hard liners angered over his many criticisms of their practices. Once he finally managed to extinguish his bed, Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett won himself a seat in Australia’s house of Representatives, serving there to this day, working for aboriginal rights.
There’s a lot of time between now and November’s big election, and we’re sure to see plenty more controversial statements and endless sound bites from candidates while a carefully chosen classic rock or soul song plays in the background. Remember to look beyond the surface of the candidates and their celebrity endorsements and examine their actual message. Whatever happens on the way to the election, be sure to REGISTER ONLINE HERE.