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Preaching Politics Onstage

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As music fans, we all have expectations of the bands that populate our collections. Those expectations depend on each individual listener and the kind of music. For me, the most important things in any kind of music (in no particular order) are melody, harmonies, intensity, emotion, and originality. The ways in which a band is able to pull off these characteristics are nearly infinite, but increasingly I have noticed a lot of bands uniting behind opinions to try and capture and create a sense of intensity and emotion.

It has bothered me a lot in the past year when a band has talked politics onstage at rock shows. I have seen political messages preached to me from bands like Thursday, The Appleseed Cast and most recently and most unintelligently with the AKA’s. Thursday talked about ending the war and made a snide comment about having gone to war in the first place. The Appleseed Cast went off on Bush and the AKA’s decided to use an ad hominem attack on Bush as if John Kerry sponsored their message. In fairness to the AKA’s they were also running a voter registration drive which I have absolutely no problem with. Telling people that they should vote is a good cause.

I am left with a question. Why is a rock show an acceptable forum for political pontification?

You can’t get into any issues in any sort of depth. All you are left with is something that you can fit into the fifteen seconds between songs. This is hardly an opportunity to make a valid point. How many points do you know of that can be made in a fifteen second spot? If you want to write something on your website and make some sort of a point, then that is fine, but otherwise you are just alienating a bunch of people at a rock show who wanted to listen to your music. Even if a bunch of the kids end up agreeing with you, they aren’t learning anything by repeating what they heard from their rock star heroes in some club.

I know all the examples I gave were against Bush, but that is all I have seen so far this year. In order to be fair, there are also right-wing types of bands as well. One site in particular is called www.conservativepunk.com. But, regardless of the message, I am left asking a very simple question that I think more rock fans should ask. What makes a musician qualified to talk politics? And what about being a musician makes them more knowledgeable to the point where I should listen and derive my opinions from theirs? The fact is that these are a bunch of people who are good at writing songs, conveying messages through music and lyrics. In no way does this give them some insight into the intellectual topics of the day.

When I was younger, I fell for this kind of thing hook, line and sinker. I was influenced by the messages in all of the music I liked. I used to get really angry listening to Rage Against the Machine and I could spout some of their lines as if they were my own. When the Tool album Aenima came out, I automatically took it as an unarguable fact that Los Angeles is a big, fake, plastic, disgusting place with horrible people, who don’t care about anything but plastic surgery, fashion, and lattes. I decided to just agree with Tool and I hoped that Los Angeles would fall into Arizona Bay.

Wait just a minute, though. I have never been to LA. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who was from California. Frankly, the only knowledge of LA I had was Beverly Hills 90210 and Beverly Hills Cop movies. In essence, I was taking my opinions from Brandon Walsh, Axel Foley and Tool. To think about that in hindsight is kind of embarrassing for me. Now that I am a little bit older, I don’t jump on board with anything just because a guy who can sing or play guitar tells me I should. For the record, one of the messages that Tool sends to their fans is that they should think for themselves. I was just too immature to understand at the time.

According to press coverage before their latest album came out, Thursday claim that their music doesn’t have as many political messages as it is just storytelling of personal strife and triumph filtered through political imagery. That’s fine, but when I have seen them live, they have spoken to audiences about different topics and different things that they believe. They were critical of political ideas and politicians. It is their right to say whatever they want onstage, just as it is my right to not buy a ticket if I don’t want it, but that doesn’t really cover the entire issue.

Again, I am left thinking; what makes singer, Geoff Rickly, uniquely qualified to teach me about anything? Is he somehow smarter than I am? I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the answer is a resounding, NO. I am not saying he is a dumb guy. He could be right about everything he says on all accounts, but as a singer for a rock band, he doesn’t have a secret pipeline to political enlightenment and it is important for fans to remember that.

We all know what experts are. Alan Greenspan is an experienced veteran on the economy, interest rates and things like that. Nobody asks him how he feels about drug laws at the state level. Roger Ebert is an experienced movie critic, so nobody asks him how he recommends cooking paella. Hell, Roger Ebert might cook a really great paella, but in order for us to listen, he must somehow prove to us that he has some expertise before anyone will care. So be careful whose speech you filter into your brain.

Ultimately it is important to me that a band has something that they feel strongly about, whether it is religion, politics or their love for the staff at their neighborhood Applebee’s restaurant. It will make their music more emotional, more intense and from my perspective much more entertaining if they are united in some way. I will never fault a band for using a theme for that effect. I won’t fault a band for speaking their mind either, as I value speech as a right of all people. As I said previously, I have the choice whether to buy their album or a ticket to their show. The one thing I would caution a lot of these bands on is using their theme in such a way that it can prove to be divisive. You don’t have to like everything about a band and you don’t have to agree with their opinions to enjoy the music, unless they put you, as the listener, in that position. I would caution music fans as I have already learned the lesson.

What makes me uniquely qualified to caution you about anything? Well, I think I have some experience with this whole thing, but ultimately, I am not uniquely qualified at all.

This is the whole point, really. Consider the sources of the messages you receive. And no matter what, make sure you do some of your own critical thinking on any topic before you decide where you stand. It is good that a lot of these bands are thinking and expressing opinions, but don’t let them think and create your opinions for you.

(This article first appeared at RockDummy.com)

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About Craig Lyndall

  • Some musicians actually get involved in LEARNING something about the politics they espouse, and might have some legitimate input. Bono and debt relief comes to mind as an example.

    Even then, though, it won’t work out so good as a few seconds shoehorned in between songs.

  • An important point, Al.

    I am not saying these guys don’t have points and some of them might even have insight as Bono has proven over the years. My problem is when I get peppered by every other band I see. And I see a lot of kids at these shows who are are as impressionable as I know I was back when I was a young’in.

  • Yeah, that’s the problem, isn’t it? For every one Bono who has sought education and actually spent time and effort to make a reasonable and extended argument, we get a dozen dumb bunnies like Natalie Maines interested only in snorting a quick line of self-righteousness.

  • most of the bitching about this kind of thing is against left wingers. big deal.

    why no bitching about people tossing out “support our troups”, “god bless our troops”, etc?

    and i think you all are giving kids too little credit. maybe they’ll investigate the issue being spouted. they may find out more about it…including the possible fact that the artist was indeed full of crap.

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    Interesting post Craig. I’ve always been
    suspect of bands that mix politics with
    music.Chiefly because so many don’t seem
    able to articulate their thoughts and/or
    agendas beyond personal opinion.Jello B.
    and a handful of other rockers being the
    exception here.

    A lot of punk bands/rock bands/hip-hop
    artists etc. run around screaming “Oh I
    Hate Bush”.Well that’s OK but,when asked
    why usually the answer is usually along
    the lines of “Because he sucks” or “He’s
    an asshole”.While there may be some sort
    of validity to those points(depending,of
    course on your personal slant on things
    political)it takes a bit more argument
    than that to convince most people of why
    they should want him out of or into the
    Oval office.

    But on the same hand,if they can help to
    convince their fans to register and vote
    through spewing political discourse(misguided
    as it may be)at their shows then maybe they
    have served some purpose.

  • Mark, I mentioned conservativepunk.com in order to try and be a bit fair, but ultimately it is impossible to get too crazy about the right wingers on an issue like this because they either don’t exist or aren’t at all vocal.

    I will admit it if I am wrong, but in my experience at shows over the last few years and reading articles and liner notes, etc, this is how it has been.

  • JR

    Come to think of it, a lot of performers sing about love all the time. Do they really have any more experience with monogamous relationships than the rest of us?

  • that’s not the same thing and you know it. my original article was talking about politics and religion because there are also a lot of Christian hardcore/indie/emo bands out there that I see every week. I decided they had to be different articles.

    You could say that religion and politics could be similar, but your point about love is lost because love has never proven to be a controversial divisive topic.

  • Vern Halen

    Let’s not forget that getting behind a cause has been fashionable for years, regardless of whether it’s legitimate or not. What about bands that support PETA or espouse vegetarian lifestyles or eschew leather clothing (wow – first time I ever used eschew anywhere!)? If you don’t agree with them but like their music, are you going to boycott their concert? Does anyone really care if you do or not?

    Let’s also not forget it’s fashionable to question the legitimacy of anything and everything in our modern cynical world. And so we get the music critics critcising the musicians who criticise the government who criticise the musicians who criticise them and right back on down the line.

    What’s needed is not more posing, but solutions and leadership, both of which are seriously lacking. It’s a sad state of affairs when musicians make political points while the politicians play the image game. Nowadays, just who are the real rock stars?

  • Vern Halen, I can’t help laughing every time I see that name.

    You made some very good points here, but I think more than trying to be critical of musicians, I am trying to make sure music fans think for themselves.

  • he sings for a country & western Van Halen cover band, ya know.


  • brown_boognish

    If someone believes in something strongly enough they should say it.

  • I know. I agree. Just be careful what you, as a listener, derive from what someone says.

  • Vern Halen

    Yes, I agree, one must be firm in one’s convictions and speak your mind when necessary. As well, you’ve got to learn to think for yourself. I think these are both components of responsible leadership through example.

    I can’t help but wonder, though – all those hippies & radicals fron the 60’s (musicians included) – where did all their political beliefs get them? Did they really mean anything after all, did they bring people to a deeper understanding of themselves, did they change the world? Shouldn’t the world be a better place, or what happened? Not being from the 60’s, I can’t answer that.

    Maybe it’s simply a case of (as the saying goes), “What was once passion is now style.”

  • the vietnam war ended, i would say thats an improvement for the world.

    People aren’t preaching politics because they think it will make them money. If anything its risky because some people may disagree and stop listening. But if someone really believes in changing things they cannot remain silent.

  • my message is more for the listener. Be careful where you get your info.