Several weeks ago Progarchy contributor Bryan Morey posted an article, Keep Your Politics Out of My Prog, regarding musicians and the commercial risks they take when speaking their minds politically. Bryan is a passionate writer and has deeply held beliefs; nonetheless, I took exception with what he said and how he said it, and made my comments in the honest and positive forum that is Progarchy. All good. But…it stayed with me, and thanks to Bryan for spurring me to further thought, and now to writing more.
I also feel compelled to write now, this evening, because a musical icon yesterday made a political statement regarding recently passed legislation in North Carolina, the state in which I live, where I was married, and where one of my children was born. What has become known as HB2 is a law destructive of not only the Civil Rights Acts but of the grassroots, everyday work that millions of people in the South have undertaken in the last 70 years, to ensure that all are equal before the law. In canceling his show in Greensboro, North Carolina tomorrow, Bruce Springsteen made the following statement:
As you, my fans, know I’m scheduled to play in Greensboro, North Carolina this Sunday. As we also know, North Carolina has just passed HB2, which the media are referring to as the “bathroom” law. HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. Right now, there are many groups, businesses, and individuals in North Carolina working to oppose and overcome these negative developments. Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th. Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.
I think as humans and citizens we should use the voices we have to speak out for what we believe to be the truth, what we believe to be right, and I admire Springsteen (someone whose politics, admittedly, I generally agree with) for using the voice he has and sending a message that needed sending to an increasingly retrograde Southern political establishment, on whom the shadows of segregation are again creeping. It would be the poor artist who would shrink from using their total voice, to contain themselves only to their primary medium, regardless of the size of their fan base. In digging deep, artists and musicians push boundaries, often at great personal and commercial cost, and the ones who are successful are without fail also the ones who are compelled to speak their minds in all aspects of their lives. It might be messy, it might not look great on paper, it might not live up to the images they can magically conjure in their art or the idealization we, their fans, have built up around them or integrity we ascribe to them. But we don’t get to have the one without the other, and any artist worth their salt, that I can think of, would not change their point of view or what they choose to say based on the sales of albums or tickets. In taking the action he did, Bruce Springsteen showed again why his band and his fans call him the Boss and why, over his 40-odd years as a professional musician, his artistry has remained so vibrant.
22 thoughts on “The Place of an Artist”
All power to you Craig and fellow humans who are prepared to stand up and fight for their freedoms in these dark times. Bruce Springsteen is a fine man and has never shirked from voicing his convictions. I only became aware of this law recently and despair how people with the power to make change for the good instead take a path which encourages bigotry and greed. Of course these are exactly the politics of Trump and his supporters like our own Brian Morey need to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves do they really want this charlatan running the greatest country on Planet Earth.
At least have the decency to spell my damn name right if you’re going to insult me, Richie. You still clearly haven’t read my article, so I ask that you do that before attributing things to me that may not be true. I also find it funny how you think its ok for people of your own political persuasion to have free speech, but people like me aren’t allowed to speak freely without being called haters, racists, charlatans, or any other measure of nonsense. Fricking unbelievable.
First of all please let me apologise for getting your name wrong Bryan, however that is all I will be sorry for as far as you are concerned.
Now let us set some other points straight. I did read your article, I read it three times. One thing I got from your article was that you were attempting to gag musicians from voicing their political opinions, who would it be next I wonder?
I do remember you stated on this forum that you were a supporter of that loony Trump. I`ve checked it`s still there. You are quite welcome to your views, I do not remember stating the opposite in fact I admire your courage in admitting to doing so.
I have a question for you what is my political persuasion? No, please don`t answer I do not wish to partake in a protracted discourse with you.
Thanks, Richie. All I meant by my article was that artists should refrain from using public forums like social media to insult their fans of a different political persuasion. If they are going to get political, there is a way to do it in lyrics that is much more powerful than simply calling Americans stupid and retarded on a twitter page (which is what I was directly reacting against when I wrote that post). That doesn’t get anybody anywhere. I’ve never liked Springsteen because it seems like he is sacrificing art for the sake of politics. Put the art first and politics (which is so stinking mundane) at a distant second. Artists, musical or otherwise, aren’t remembered for their political positions. They are remembered for their art.
And on your last point, Progarchy is certainly not a place fit for political specifics, lol.
Well said Craig
Beautifully stated, Craig. And, of course, progarchy is a free-speech republic. All viewpoints welcomed, as long expressed with civility and respect.
I would add one other thing to the conversation. So much actually depends on the art of the political statement made. That is: it can be crass and propagandistic or it can be deep and meaningful. Part of my argument against certain bands is not their political views, per se, but the tackiness with which they’re expressed.
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Thanks Brad. I’ve found that tacky usually isn’t a plan for success, and that a little civility goes a long way. We can all learn from Lincoln’s “hot” letters. I really appreciated Springsteen’s statement because, being so measured, it was that much more devastating.
While I disagree with you in some regards, Craig, I greatly appreciate the civil, intelligent, and eloquent way you wrote this. This is what a dialogue should look like. Thanks.
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Interesting article and ensuing conversation. But here is my British two penny worth. Substitute Springsteen for Big Big Train or Rush or whoever your absolute favourite band is and you have a ticket for their concert next week and it might be the only chance you will get to see them live. Then they cancel for political reasons. I think I would be devastated. Voice your opinion from the stage if you want but let me hear the music if I’ve paid for my ticket as a supporter of you the artist/ band
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Hi Dave, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that had I tickets I’d be disappointed that I couldn’t go. I also believe in speaking truth to power, so there’s some balance their for me. I’ve no doubt Springsteen thinks about all these things before making the kind of decision he made, and would guess a big piece of it for him is knowing that he’s also taking a financial hit that trickles down to the hundreds of people it takes to put on a show, who effectively work for him for that night. It couldn’t have been easy for him, even if he is fortunate to be in the kind of position he is, where he can afford to take such action.
Who would have thought that a mentally ill man demanding to enter a woman’s bathroom would be a “right” that anyone would defend. This is how far our country has fallen.
Hey Rav, I know there’s nothing I could write that would change your mind on this, and I also have my opinions about what constitutes mentally ill. I will say, however, that while the specifics of the particular law are part of my post (and the law itself reaches far beyond its face and has far greater implications than the piece you cite), it was mostly my intention to further explore how artists can/should use their voices beyond their particular medium.
I think Springsteen missed an opportunity here. He could have talked about this at the show, encouraged his fans to write/call their representatives, and come up with a protest song like he’s done before. He would still be making a stand just as effectively.
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Brian, I think that’s an excellent observation, that he could have created change through greater engagement rather than boycott.
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Bryan: Don’t ever become a jazz fan. I have to say, I nearly go nuts whenever I–being a die-hard jazz nut (with some 8,000 jazz albums)–have to listen to jazz musicians pontificate about social and political issues. I’d say that 96% of them have clearly never studied or read a lick of political philosophy or anything related to a meaningful understanding of principles, movements, issues, and such. It’s almost all group think and parroting the usual faddish nonsense. Of course, that sort of thing happens on both the left and right, but the arts tend to be dominated (and I think that’s an accurate term) by those who grovel before the altar of secular, neo-socialist, chronologically-snobbish, relativistic statism. So it goes. I say that if a musician wants to subject me to his views, then perhaps he might want to listen a CD of me singing operatic arias and Black Sabbath tunes.
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I’ve always enjoyed jazz, but I don’t listen to it all that often. It seems that it is easier to avoid the politics of jazz musicians because their music is usually instrumental, so you can ignore their private lives. But ya, you’re right about them not knowing much about political philosophy and such. I think that goes for the majority of musicians – Roger Waters is a walking contradiction. Most (not all) of these people and their fans that agree with them aren’t really capable of understanding a position other than their own (and they arguably don’t even understand that very well), and they get angry if you disagree. I still say musicians, for the sake of prudence, should steer clear of insulting fans of a different political persuasion, especially when they don’t know what the deuce they are talking about in the first place.
Interesting viewpoints expressed on both sides. Personally, I’m with Bruce on this one – though I’d undoubtedly feel disappointment if I had tickets for a show that was cancelled.
I’m not convinced that going ahead with the show and pontificating from the stage is an effective statement, either. Do that and you are reaching out to a few thousand individuals. Cancel a show and it becomes news, and a hundred times as many people get to hear about it.
On the issue of artists pontificating through their music, I think the key point here is that, as listeners, we don’t get to vote on this. This is not, primarily, a commercial transaction. Of course, money changes hands (in most cases), so that the artist is able to pay the bills and carry on making art, but that isn’t the most important feature of the relationship. We are not ‘consumers’ in the business sense, and we do not have consumers’ rights. An artist communicates their thoughts and feelings to us through their music: *their* thoughts and feelings, which may align with or contradict our own. As listeners, we are free to accept or reject the message, but we don’t get to decide its contents.
I guess I’ve listened to music from a thousand different artists, and no doubt a good proportion of those don’t see the world in the way that I do. I’ve experienced moments of discomfort when a lyric makes it clear that an artist has very different different political views, and I can’t pretend that it hasn’t affected my opinion of that artist, or the frequency with which I listen to their music. But it is valuable to hear those differing views, nonetheless. One of the reasons I hold Neil Peart in such high esteem is that he’s made me think about certain things in a different way.
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Nick, thanks for your thoughtfulness and insight; you’ve added further depth to a good conversation.
Perhaps I should clarify a couple of things re: my comment above.
First, I don’t have a problem, in general, with musicians sharing their thoughts and opinions about social, political, and religious issues. I certainly don’t have any interest in censorship, or in flatly saying, “Musicians should only talk about music!”
Second, I do have a problem with musicians who act as if they, because they are creative and artistic, have some special insight into such matters. Part of my reaction here is shaped from my time in art school and from being around artists (I’ve sold a lot of commercial and fine art, and attended art school for two years). Some (not all!) artistic folks confuse their knowledge of their feelings, which they sometimes mistake for reality, with authentic and objective truth. I recognize that certain jazz artists–Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, etc.–played integral roles in fighting racism and supporting the civil rights movement. Alas, many musicians now think they have to find new and cutting edge movements in order to validate themselves in some way. The problem is twofold: many of the movements they support are lacking in both moral worth and intellectual heft, and the stances made for them are not taken because of moral insight but due to reactionary group think and a sort of soft totalitarianism.
Third, I distinguish between an artist being asked a question in an interview, an artist making a statement in a lyric, an artist pontificating from the stage, and an artist being an overt activist. I have the most sympathy and patience with the artist as lyricist; in fact, some of my favorite music includes viewpoints that I directly disagree with regarding many different issues. That is, in part, because I think a good artist needs to pose and push difficult and even upsetting questions. For that same reason, I dislike music and literature that is didactic and lecturing in nature; it usually is not of good artistic quality. Thus, despite being a serious Catholic (and once a serious Evangelical Protestant), I think most “contemporary Christian music” is lousy, or worse. For the same reason, I tend to dislike “protest” music, or music that is obviously pushing an agenda, rather than trying to contemplate or reflect on issues and events.
Along those same lines, I’ve been at Christian concerts where the event was mostly ruined by a long and excruciating “testimony”; likewise, I’ve seen concerts in which left-wing artists have harangued and lectured the audience. I find both to be annoying or worse; they each suggest a sort of infantile insecurity and need to be “taken seriously” which, ironically, makes me not take them seriously at all. As for artists who wish to be activists and thus do boycotts and make grand statements, their stances and arguments (if they have any) should be taken up and examined as rigorously as anybody else’s. Yet some of these artists think they should be immune from criticism, and prove to be incredibly thin-skinned about such. They, again, feel (as oppose to think) they have some great insight due their incredible sensitivity and creativity. Sorry, I don’t buy it, and I never will.
Unfortunately, the cult of celebrity has so conflated politics and power and personal charisma, it’s difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff. Then there’s the strange fact that many artists very cleverly use an anti-establishment persona to actually advance themselves commercially. The bottom line for me is simple: just because I like and enjoy an artist’s music doesn’t mean I am going to swallow and unthinkingly embrace their stance on this, that, or the other thing. On the contrary, it probably makes me question it even more strenuously.
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Good stuff, Carl, thanks for adding these thoughts.
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Craig, I would also like to thank you for the civil way in which you presented your thoughts. I don’t agree with Springsteen’s reasoning, but I respect his decision. However, while not wishing to lump together two very different artists with no doubt differing ideas, I find the “rock” response to this situation at odds with a corollary situation from a few weeks ago which I would guess many who agree with Springsteen would also likely support. Isn’t strange that the “rock old guard” is protesting the very peaceful, if controversial, actions in North Carolina while celebrating with the brutal dictatorship in Cuba through the performance by the Rolling Stones?
Kevin, thanks, really good points. I think you’re right that the Stones and Springsteen are very different beasts. Springsteen’s always been clear where he stands (and you could probably scour his career and find inconsistencies and hypocrisies, as you would with any warm blooded human). The Rolling Stones are a different story, and are arguably personally and publicly apolitical (I’m throwing this out here, I really have no idea if they ever took a stand on anything political, but I haven’t seen evidence of it if they have). They, and many others obviously, had no problem touring the South in the 60s during the era of Jim Crow, when many southern schools were still segregated despite federal civil rights legislation. I think they genuinely take delight in challenging convention while also embracing it, a trick they’ve managed for 50+ years. I’m not surprised they performed in Cuba, and I’m not sure I disapprove, just as I wouldn’t disapprove of Springsteen playing in Greensboro and saying nothing about the current situation. And I wonder if it’s true that the Rolling Stones are celebrating a brutal dictatorship or playing the same tunes they’ve played for years for a crowd they’ve never been able to play to. And I recognize the one action may be implicit in the other, so have no answer for myself to this question.