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A response to “Musicians Know Best”

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The debate over whether or not entertainers should be allowed to express their political views goes on. Here’s Eric Olsen serving up his latest contribution here at Blogcritics.

Okay, I’m convinced – time to turn over the government to musicians because if we enjoy their music, then surely they know what’s best regarding foreign policy. I think the judgment shown in letting rip with a fireworks display in a crowded broom closet speaks well of musicians everywhere.
What’s that you say? It’s not fair to tar all musicans for the dangerous mindlessness of a few? It makes at least as much sense as turning to musicians for advice on the affairs of state. I love musicians, I AM a musician at least on some level, but as a class, musicians are some of the most insular, unrealistic, blind, dogmatic people I know. This may be great for making art, but it is really bad for making public policy…

Whereupon Eric goes on to shred this initiative being headed by Russell Simmons and David Byrne. The most heated discussions at Blogcritics are the political ones and this has so far proven to be no exception. Suffice to say that early in the ensuing comments-fest Eric made this comment:

I am saying, why does anyone think that just because someone is a celebrity, he/she knows what the hell they are talking about?

To which I’ve lately responded myself by asking, why should we then assume that just because someone is a politician that they know what they’re talking about? We hope they do, much as we hope that any professional knows how to ply their trade, but we shouldn’t automatically make that assumption. There are musicians who should never be let near a microphone, and I’m sure there are politicians who should never be let near a political party registration form.

I don’t know. I’m just long since over this wholesale slamming of entertainers for voicing political opinions. Actually, it’s not even that people wish famous folks would keep their traps shut when it comes to political matters, it’s more that pro-war types like Eric seem to get shitty when famous folks express specifically anti-war opinions. Cf. this article by Matthew Reid from Front Page Magazine, which starts by duly noting Kid Rock’s pro-war sentiments expressed at a pre-Grammys party recently, then goes on to blast at some length his Grammy duetting partner Sheryl Crow for her anti-war sentiments. Interesting how the artist formerly known as Bob Ritchie doesn’t cop a similar spray, even though he was basically doing the same thing as Sheryl, i.e. expressing his stance on a political matter. Evidently it’s OK for some to do that but not others, depending upon the particular stance taken. Of course, I’m sure there are anti-war commentators out there willing to stick the knife into celebrities for being pro-war. It’s just that pro-war commentators seem to be the ones going on the attack more often.

Anyway, if you reckon all the people who’ve signed on with that Win Without War thing are idiots, then just ignore them. Don’t buy their records, don’t listen to them, don’t read about them, switch off the radio or TV when they come on. That’s the real difference between a musician and a politician: if you don’t support a musician, you don’t have to live with the consequences of their political opinions. You can’t do that with a politician. I didn’t vote for John Howard, but I DO have to live with the consequences of his political opinions whether I like them or not.

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About James Russell

  • I do think it’s possible to chafe at the number of celebrity statements without particularly caring whether that statement is pro- or anti- anything. I know that I react more to the Cult of Celebrity than I do the message. It’s a card that both sides of the political debate have played with increasing vigor – hell, Ronald Reagan worked it into the White House (anyone who thinks that celebrity didn’t factor into that ‘un hasn’t talked to my aged midwestern in-laws, who voted for the man simply because they remembered his voice on the radio) – and while it’s probably here to stay, that doesn’t mean I won’t periodically take digs at it.

  • Dawn

    I put WAY more stock in what a political pundit has to say about foreign policy than say a record producer. It doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to say it, it just means that using their celebrity status to further a cause they have very little understanding of is negligent at best and comforting the enemy at worst.

    I think Eric’s stance on that bone of contention was quite well stated and pretty valid.

    We all have a right to free speech, but I don’t see my local garbage man’s views getting airtime, so why should a person who’s job happens to make them a celebrity get carte blanch?

    I think that is the point. And the point seems to be missed, again, by the opposing view.

    What else is new?

  • Eric Olsen

    James, I object to two elements ofyour analysis: I am not a “pro-war type” – I have concluded that this war is necessary, not war in general. I also have no idea why you would compare me to someone at Front Page magazine – no one speaks for me.

    Dawn is right, what I object to is the structure of a system that gives celebrities a voice in the media and not civil engineers or hairdressers, or whoever. This has no bearing on whether I agree or not with the position taken. You should know me better than that.

  • The Theory

    just a quick note…

    usually it seems that *most* celebrities don’t go looking to make statements, but in an interview the interviewer asks them. Of course, they’re going to reply.

    Then the media blows it up. We should be blaming the media for elevating celebrities’ view.

    but that’s just my personal opinion.


  • Eric Olsen

    When someone is asked their opinion on something in the context of an interview, of course they have every right to give it. No problem there.

  • Andrew Carnegie famously remarked that all workers should have the to plead grievances. He just didn’t like them organizing.

    Because when they do it all at once, he didn’t need to add, they are hard to resist.

  • Celebrities vs. the little people, hmmm, in one of his “Hitchhiker” books, Douglas Adams proposed the downfall of a civilization because they didn’t pay attention to telephone cleaners.

    However, the fact that certain people get whuffie should mean something, and that we pay attention to them means they have garnered enough whuffie to mean something. And if they are an actor or musician, I would give them more respect than a politician, who is merely a professional scumbag.

  • I wish that anti-war groups didn’t have to resort to using celebrities or massing in large numbers and chanting silly slogans while holding funny signs to get attention.

    But it hasn’t been easy to get experienced, reasonable voices on mainstream media. Anti-war views are covered in the streets, but their spokespeople aren’t invited into the television studios (it has gotten a bit better, but often the people doing the talking now are French or German, not US citizens).

    They placed that ad because they knew it would get media coverage. Michael Klare or Mark Danner writing an article doesn’t. It doesn’t even get them booked onto a tv show except maybe Donahue (oops, it has been cancelled in part because he had too many anti-war voices).

    And as Sean Penn pointed out when he was criticized for going to Iraq and speaking out, most of the people attacking him voted for Ronald Reagan.

  • James Russell

    Eric, I wasn’t trying to draw a comparison between you and the far-right creeps at Front Page. I only brought them up as an example of how commentators who normally let rip at celebrities for getting political make exemptions when the opinions expressed agree with their own. Cf. also this post from Andrea Harris (“Things have gotten really weird when Kid Rock says something sensible”).

    I also didn’t mean to paint you as being in favour of anything more than the impending business in Iraq. I see, though, the language I used was terribly imprecise in that respect, and so for that I do apologise.

  • Eric, as reporters and reviewers, we ate neck deep in conferring celebrity status on these people.

    I think it’s bullshit, too, and I wouldn’t do diddly on account of an opinion of Michael Stipe or Eminem thinkling one way or another about an issue.

    That point is pretty well secured. The one still up in the air is, should musicians be ridiculed for offering an opinion? Are ideas like “We Are the World” or Willie Nelson’s Farm-Aid or Niel Young raising money for kids with CP pure baloney?

    I think you bave to evaluate them on a one-by-one basis. In the case of the war, they are taking a risk. Who knew that kid Rock was pro-war and Sheryl Crow against it? They stand to lose listeners just as politicians stand to lose votes. taking a stand hits them in the pocketbook unless they took very clculated stands.

    So I say, generally, hats off to them for putting their power of celebrity on the line for an idea. Pro athletes very seldom do that — a sign they are even more self-absorbed than singers and composers.

    I admire people like Sting and Paul McCartney and that guy from the Boomtown Rats for trying to mean something beyond the vinyl grooves (I know, archaism).

    That doesn’t make them right, and some may sometimes be guilty of pandering. But I’m inclined to give them credit for at least trying to think these things through.