About ten years ago, a friend of mine informed me that he had tickets to see the pop punk band Green Day and that we were going to this show. I cannot say that at the time, or at any time, that I was particularly into Green Day. They were always a little soft and radio friendly for my liking, not to mention a little too tuned into the teenage market for me. That said, I went anyway, because my buddy wanted to go, and he was treating me to the event and we had a good time. It was definitely an over sized arena show by a group that played nothing but the hits, but it was exactly what I expected and I have to give my compliments to the band for allowing a members of the audience to play guitar on one of the songs. Audience participation is always cool.
A couple times during the set, lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made brief but critical comments about then president George W. Bush. I was not surprised by this, as I generally agreed and was aware that the group was touring to promote their album American Idiot, which was one of the few commercially successful releases that expressed opposition to dealt with the Iraq war and was critical of the Bush administration. My friend on the other hand was rubbed the wrong way. He said, “I don’t think musicians should talk about politics”.
On some level I could see where he was coming from, after all who wants to hear the political opinions of bunch of guys who previous releases focused more on weed and masturbation? Often we turn to music for entertainment and political commentary is often just a drag. It often comes off as preachy and often does not always make for the best art. It alienates those potential fans who disagree with stated position, and it is hardly a safe strategy for commercial success. This is not to mention that numerous entertainers who discuss politics or involve themselves in particular causes often come off as not knowing what they are talking about, or as simply trying to improve their depraved public image. It can also just be annoying.
Of course, people tend to be less annoyed when the celebrity in question is one they like or is spouting ideas they agree with, especially if they are doing it eloquently. Often celebrity commentators will express support for bandwagonish causes like support for same-sex marriage, which I generally agree with, but their commentary rarely includes the relevant nuances. For example few that same-sex marriage will have the unfortunate effect of subjecting gay people to the same heavy-handed social engineering that strait people have been subjected to for years.
That said, in the realm of music some of my favorite releases are extremely political in nature and some my favorite artist specialize in using music as a means of political or social commentary. The idea that nobody wants to hear their political opinions is absurd, since that is what attracted their audiences to begin with. Examples include Crass, Clutch, MC5, The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and much of Bob Dylan’s Early Stuff. Overall I wish we had more commercially successful anti-war records over the last decade than we did. American Idiot and Neil Young‘s Living with War, were the main one’s that stood out. I personally find it hard to blame entertainers who do offer their views on various controversial issues. After all, if you have a large audience, and feel strongly about something, why not make your opinions known to that audience. Hell, I’m as obscure as the next guy but I’m still doing what I can to get my thoughts out there.
I also tend to think that we should discuss political and social issues more rather than less. I tend to agree with the Chomskian view point that all to often most of us are spectators of the political system, rather than active thorns in its side. Most of us go out and vote for one of two establishment friendly candidates, every few years and that is about it. If having some public figure opening his or her mouth about a particular issue helps to keep it on our minds than I am all for it. All to often mass entertainment acts as a distraction from what is really going on and if someone in the business does something to counter this, I am cool with it.
That said, I definitely do not want us taking to many political cues from big name entertainers. As more often than not they are from elite backgrounds and are far more sympathetic with establishment values than I am comfortable with. After all, each election cycle we see countless celebrities being courted to endorse the utterly wretched candidates that the two major parties nominate. Often it seems that entertainers act as one of the propaganda wings of the political establishment, and should be seen with the same suspicion as the politicians themselves. I will also say I really cannot be moved to care what the Ben Afflecks or Ted Nugents of the world think about any thing. I have to admit we really do not need these people having a major role in how our supposed leaders present themselves. I will even go further and note that some entertainers who have crossed over and become politicians have been completely horrific: think Arnold Schwarzenegger or even worse, Ronald Reagan.
That said, I do like it when my musicians make occasional political statements in their output. I like knowing whether or not the individual I am listening to shares my values in this or that area. I will also say that the entertainment sector is also probably the one sector of the establishment that is less infested with puritanical values than the rest, which does make its role a political discourse more positive than it would other wise be and I do recognize that western entertainment has a history in undermining authoritarian values and regimes around the world, which is also positive. For example I have heard quite a few stories of people turned off to various forms of authoritarian Islam, by the counter examples of a free society shown in western books and films, also there is the role that rock music played in collapse of the one party communist state in what is now the Czech Republic. Overall, I tend to support anyone acting to get people more interested in the existing situation, but I do have to regard political statements by entertainers with the same level of suspicion as those from anyone else. Do your own research, and form your own opinions. Never take anyone’s word for it.