Artists as Activists: Further Musings

The issue of whether politics has a place in music sparked lively debate on this site about a month back, a debate that reignited just over a week ago following Bruce Springsteen’s sudden cancellation of a North Carolina concert in protest at legislation limiting the rights of LGBT citizens. It has been interesting to participate in the comment thread and, like Carl earlier, I’ve been prompted to expand on my initial thoughts.

To my mind, two related questions seem to have arisen from all this discussion. The first is whether artists should use their music as a vehicle for expressing their own political beliefs, cognizant of the fact that fans out there may disagree (perhaps vehemently) with said beliefs. The second (triggered by the Springsteen announcement) is whether artists have an obligation as performers that overrides any issues of conscience.

Let’s start with the second question. Issues of conscience (or lack thereof) are nothing new when it comes to live performance. Artists such as Rod Stewart, Status Quo and (mostly infamously) Queen all played the Sun City resort in Bophuthatswana at the height of apartheid, earning themselves places on a U.N. blacklist as a result. Those artists, against the prevailing opinion of the time, decided for whatever reason that politics (or, more accurately, issues of human rights) should not dictate where they chose to play. Springsteen, however, has taken the opposite view.

Was Bruce right to cancel? Some have argued that, besides disappointing many thousands of ticketholders, he also missed an opportunity to express his views from the stage. But that message would have reached only those thousands. By cancelling the show, he made it news, putting the issue in the minds of a hundred times as many. It’s clearly something he cares passionately about – and passion is something we want in our music-makers. Passion can be the fuel for great music.

Of course, it’s one thing to cancel a concert, quite another to write songs that express your deeply-held political beliefs. A concert’s an ephemeral thing but a song, once recorded and released, is out there forever. Prog exacerbates this by giving artists the freedom to write longer songs that promote their world view in much greater detail. It’s inevitable that this will cause friction with a certain section of the fan base.

Part of the problem is that we all have different ideas on where the dividing line is between mere expression of a differing opinion and prosyletizing. For example, Bryan Morey notes in the comment thread of his original article that he respects Andy Tillison’s social critique despite their differing political viewpoints, yet that same social critique also inspired a sarcastic savaging of Le Sacre du Travail by one embittered DPRP reviewer (scroll to the end of that page to read it, if you can bear to).

In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what we think as listeners, because we don’t get to vote on this. We’re not dealing with a commercial transaction here. 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 artists, and I doubt that any of them see the world in quite the same way as I do. I’ve experienced moments of discomfort when a lyric makes it clear that an artist has very different 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. Neal Morse is a case in point. Much as I respect Neal for his work with Spock’s Beard and for the sense of purpose that drives his solo career, I’ll freely admit that I’m put off listening to his solo work by its overtly religious nature. But that’s my problem rather than Neal’s.

It can be valuable to hear those differing views, nonetheless. When it’s done well (I’m thinking of you here, Mr Peart!), it can shed new light and make you think about issues from a different perspective. Let’s face it, we could all benefit from standing in another’s shoes from time to time…

So, no, I don’t want anyone to ‘keep their politics out of my prog’. I don’t want our world to be a place where Marillion would think twice about writing Gaza, where Neal Morse would hesitate to profess his belief in song or where a musician wouldn’t dare to release a concept album supporting Donald Trump (a riff on Floyd’s The Wall, perhaps? :). I want all of that passion to be pure and unfettered, even if it makes me uncomfortable from time to time.

4 thoughts on “Artists as Activists: Further Musings

  1. Thanks Nick, for your thoughtfulness. Following up, I wanted to share this link ( Against Me! is a great band making music in the grand tradition of punk and glam. Their lead singer is transgender, and they have decided to play their show in Durham, where I live, to use the moment as an opportunity to protest. Their latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, is actually a kind of primer on transgender politics, and its popularity as one of the great rock records of recent memory demonstrates, in itself, the voice musicians can have through and outside of their music.


  2. Bryan Morey

    Dr. Nick, I’m interested in your opinion on the prudence of public exhortation of political opinion. Is there a way it can be done politely or intelligently (like I think we are trying to do here at Progarchy), or is that just impossible? My real concern when I wrote my piece was about people being jerks publicly and trashing those that disagree with them, specifically on social media. That feels uncalled for and ultimately weakens their own argument, I think.

    It isn’t so much the opinions that I dislike as much as the way in which they are communicated, and I have a feeling I didn’t communicate that well enough in my own article.


    1. Dr Nick

      Only just spotted your comment, Bryan. It’s a tough problem, isn’t it? Social media are a difficult space to discuss issues, partly because of the inherent limitations (e.g. the 140-character limit of Twitter) and partly because they have a dehumanising & distancing effect. I believe that much of the highly personal nastiness that we see there simply wouldn’t happen if the arguers were face to face.

      I’ve argued that passion is a good thing in music, but I think musicians have to be more careful about getting angry than people posting to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Social media commentary is transient and heat-of-the-moment, full of comments that authors will probably regret in the cold light of day, and thankfully most of those comments will quickly be forgotten by the world at large (though not by their unfortunate target, perhaps). But if you put personal attacks into a recorded piece of music then it’s there forever. You can’t really unrelease an album if you’ve changed your opinion about something or someone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bryan Morey

        Very well said. Thanks! I guess that’s why I try to avoid social media. I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter, and I find when I look at things artists have posted, I often get angry at it (thus my post on keeping politics out of prog). Thankfully, most prog artists keep direct political commentary out of their music.



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