Music as a means of social commentary is nothing new, so why are people still surprised when a musician gets political?
“Stick to music” is the typical retort when a music publication or musician dares to comment on anything remotely political as if there’s some unspoken rule that music and politics should be kept separate entities.
What’s most curious about this all too familiar reaction is that music and politics have never been mutually exclusive, and the current swell of social commentary as artistic expression is part of an ebb and flow that’s remained a constant throughout history. Hell, it’s sparked entire genres.
One could make the argument that the point of art is to hold a mirror to the world, so why do so many people begin to switch off or arc up when music questions the structures and figures which govern our lives?
Politics past and present
In recent years, there has been an upsurge of politically charged music, particularly geared towards Donald Trump. Even here in Australia, the likes of Tropical Fuck Storm have made their stance on the “Oompa Loompa with the nukes” known through song.
Some claim this musical trend is a product of ‘snowflake culture’ bred by left-wingers, but it’s far from the first time a divisive politician has sparked a creative flood. Or have we all forgotten about Margaret Thatcher’s influence on music?
The British matriarch, nicknamed The Iron Lady, was the face of conservatism throughout her 11-year reign and bore the brunt of Britain’s disdain with the system. Across the late ’70s and ‘80s, her bold policies made way for The Beat’s ‘Stand Down Margaret’, Morrissey’s ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ and a genre-spanning collection of music fantasising over everything from her political exile to her death.
During these years, we saw British politics examined through the lens of punk, a genre built on anti-establishment ideals. Yet, where punk had created a space for outsiders, this brand of anti-Thatcherism offered a sense of universality. And while the brazen ‘fuck the system’ attitude that goes hand in hand with punk is perhaps the boldest expression of politics through music, it’s far from the only case of such.
In the US, protest songs are as much a part of American history as the wars and social injustices they chastise. It was Billie Holiday’s 1939 hit ‘Strange Fruit’ – a rendition of Abel Meeropol’s poem of the same name describing racist lynching – that marked one of the first instances of music serving both as a political statement and a piece of art.
Later, Bob Dylan would become an accidental voice for the people with his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’. His music, along with that of artists like Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell and Sam Cooke, served as a unifier among Americans fed up with their war-hungry, racist country. To a lesser extent than Thatcher, Richard Nixon would wear his fair share of lyrical name checks across his presidency.
In Australia, rock’n’roll was the vehicle of choice for political outcry; Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’ and Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’ stood as both commercial smash hits and poignant statements on the world at large. Politics saturated a range of other genres, too. Archie Roach described racial inequity and the injustice of the Stolen Generation with ‘Took The Children Away’ while Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s also lamented the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians with ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’.
Why shouldn’t music be political?
This is far from a definitive summary of the relationship between politics and music; the two are so intertwined it’s simply impossible to name every example. But this just furthers the point: music is entrenched in politics and always has been.
From the riot grrrl movement which made way for the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot to the burgeoning trend of conscious rap that arose in the ‘80s through NWA and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, music hasn’t just leaned on politics, it’s frequently been propelled by it.
To think that politically-inspired music is something new is as ignorant as the expectation that the two worlds shouldn’t interact. If you aren’t a rich, straight, able-bodied, white, cis man, politics affects your day to day life. It directly impacts the way we move through the world and thus our perception and experience as human beings. So how could artists keep politics separate from their work, even if they wanted to?
What a boring world it would be if musicians and artists side-stepped important social issues to produce easily digestible work that was certain not to arouse reflection or offer a little confrontation. It’s because of those artists who broke down barriers and made their voices heard when it was controversial to question the status quo that we have such a diversity of voices in music today.
If you don’t think that politics have a place in music, you clearly haven’t been listening.