Impeach Political Music! (A Laughless Opinion Piece)

I can't wait for Bush to leave office and be replaced by an extreme Left administration, just so the great musicians of our day can stop writing bumper-sticker music.

We've come to a sad place when lyrically oblique art rock bands like Radiohead and Elbow—British bands, by the way, residents of the U.K, not the U.S--are trading in their abstract poetics for blunt attacks on George Bush. Is it just me or does this trivialize the music? If Conor Oberst writes an album about time, history, and human mortality (Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) that's timeless stuff. I can relate to that at any time, and so will people 30 years from now. If he writes a political album attacking U.S policy and American culture (Casadega) or songs directly addressed to George Bush, ("When the President Talks to God") then that's valid for about a year and then it expires. One of my favorite bands, the above-mentioned Elbow, writes an album called Leaders of the Free World, and it's almost comical to think of the amount of heart and craft, blood sweat and tears, that went into writing an epic musical suite whose topic is the current president of this one particular country, right now, in 2007, who will be gone in a year. It's just such a waste of musical energy. If you want to pair your gorgeous music with temporary, superficial, and ultimately meaningless subject matter, why not write an album about last night's episode of American Idol?

Here's my beef with "political music". Politics is probably one of the most complex subjects in existence. Every political issue has two or three or ten sides to it. Points, counterpoints, background, context. It's complicated, ok? These issues are complicated. They are nuanced. To me it's ridiculous for musicians to try to "weigh in" on these issues through song. If two very smart people can argue about something on NPR for 30 minutes, that issue can't be boiled down to a single line on a bumper sticker or a clever couplet in a song. Attempting to distill years worth of political debate and discourse into a few lines of melody is absurd. Just because your political views rhyme doesn't make them any more correct.

Politics is not an artistic medium. It shouldn't be connected with emotions and feelings, it should be viewed dispassionately and objectively, based on facts and reason. I can't think of a more inappropriate arena for musicians to be inserting themselves. Would you ask a Congressman to draft a piece of legislation about heartbreak and lost love? Would you expect Initiative-598 to move you to tears? Then why expect a young dude singing and playing a guitar to provide useful ideas on foreign policy and the economy?

There's an annoying pattern of musicians starting out writing about things like love, sadness, personal struggles, triumphs, their own lives and the lives of other people, ideas, dreams… Real things, things that they actually know. But then a few albums later, when they've been elevated to the world stage and all eyes are on them, they feel like these subjects are no longer "important" enough, so they shift their focus to those two old standards—attacking the government, and attacking American society. (See Bright Eyes Casadega, Elbow Leaders of the Free World, Arcade Fire Neon Bible, and to some extent, Radiohead Hail to the Thief, among many others) Why is this necessary? Just because these issues are on a global or at least national scale, does that make them more important than the basic human issues that have been affecting us since the dawn of civilization? Is it just a ploy for attention by artists wanting to be taken seriously? Being "current", being "relevant"?
Please, guys, just relax, will you? We love because you're you, not because you watched CNN last night.


  1. i get that you have an oppiion but yours is not the only oppiion in the world so i dont think that you should speak with this athority that you seem to have taken on- I get some of your pionts but try to think of a government free of compassion and emotions - this tohought to me is horifying! i mean if you have no compassion then why keep around all the mentaly handicaped people i mean there not realy a useful parnt to your society or all those wounded solders from Iraq if were to be dispassionate then why not leave them there? It is an imporant and vidal part of our socity to have the right to free speach and i think thqat musicans are just as intitled to this right as you are. Who are you to say that they have no right to this? Look at the positive it may not be your oppion but they may open peoples eyes to issues that need to be adressed and if they change just a few peoples minds it helps. so if in ten years the song is not still pertanint it may have served its perpose. and if some people are so easily swayed that they will agree with somthing obsered just because their favorite band said it then they will not stic to this oppinion long and no real damiage will be done - but hey this is just my oppinion and i dont expect yhou to agree i just think that you see from others peole's point of veiw before you generilizing

  2. i love this opinion piece. i think way too many artists these days are dabbling with politics. the other person in the first comment misspelled "opinion."

    little miss sunshine

  3. anonymous...

    "Handicapped people" are not useful to society? A little--just a bit--PC never hurt anyone.

  4. I don't see anything wrong with political music, unless the artist's only motivation is to seem current, as you are suggesting.

    You seem to suggest that politics is a topic so complex, it should be off-limits to artists. The fact is, artists are people, too. Why should they not be allowed to express themselves?

  5. Ya'll keep asking why shouldn't artists be "allowed" to express their political opinions. I'm not saying musicians shouldn't be ALLOWED to write about politics, I'm just saying they're out of their element, they are doing a disservice to public understanding of politics by oversimplifying everything and then spooning it to people in easily digestible blurbs. I also feel they're cheapening their amazing music by attaching it to lyrics that are basically a campaign ad.

    So, yeah, music can create change by influencing voters, but in my mind that's a BAD thing. Most people don't know a damn thing about politics or any of these political issues, myself at least semi-included, but if Green Day writes a song saying "Fuck Republicans", all the little punk kids in America are going to vote Democrat, not because they know anything about either party or any of the issues, but because an emotionally-charged song told them how to think, in broad, simplistic terms that they can latch on to. My basic point in this blog is just that a song is the wrong medium to express political ideas, because unless it's a long, spoken-word song or something, it has no choice but to oversimplify everything, boil it down to these pithy little phrases which can't really describe the complexity of the issues. Sure a book about politics is a lot more time consuming and boring than a 3 minute pop song, but that's the kind of depth that's required to really understand complex issues. Exchanging information and debate for rhymes and emotionally-manipulating melody schemes is just not a good approach, in my opinion.

    And to the first Anonymous, I haven't "taken on" any authority...I think the phrase "opinion piece" in the title should make it pretty clear that this is an opinion. I guess I could begin every sentence with "In my opinion..." but that would get pretty old.

    I do agree that there's room for compassion in politics, though. Sure, if the government was run on a PURELY logical basis, it'd probably be something similar to a Nazi regime. But I do think that the BASIS of political action should be reason, not emotion, with some concessions being made for the human element.

  6. I don't think influencing voters through a song is a bad thing, even if the song is oversimplifying the issue. There's nothing wrong with musicians exercising their popularity to influence their fans' votes, just as there's nothing wrong with politicians oversimplifying things to win voters. Assuming the musician genuinely believes in his/her message, I don't see how delivering a political message cheapens the music. I would argue that if anything, such artists deserve more respect for being true to themselves. As far as reducing complex political issues to soundbites, musicians are no different from politicians and journalists.

  7. I don't agree 100% with what you talk about, but i do respect you for standing up for what you believe or "have an opinion on". I totally support you and i think its great that you speak out and not lash back at people when they disagree with you.

  8. You DO make excellent points, Isaac. But it's true, isn't it, that artists sometimes portray the emotions of "the people" long after an emotionally straining and politically charged time? I don't mean "American Idiot" necessarily, but I'm thinking more of Diego Rivera (okay, okay, a painter is different than a musician but it IS all art...) or maybe The Beatles. While I agree with you about the cheapness and often commercial/popular "sloganizing" of political ideology (catchy music with Easy Reader lyrics to sway en masse) I also think that, if carefully and soulfully designed, a musician could be a sort of historian someday, an explanation after the emotions are just text in a Houghton-Mifflin. Without the expression of today's artists, however pop culture American politics seems, then I don't think we'd make as healing an impression, as lasting a legend. To sing about Sidekicks, that might make one irredeemably outdated. But to sing about things that might someday date your album, that can't be altogether a negative thing. I think, too, that though not all politics are focused on a better society, more often that not social issues are fought for politically, for social empowerment (hopefully more than rallying and brainwashing daft "punk kids"). You and me, we might be embarrassed about the topics, we might not care for some of the depictions currently. But some day, if any of these songs end up on our oldies stations, generations after us will hopefully hear an Oberst (if he isn't always on college radio) line that is poignant to their social fight or helps them to understand past events that might motivate or at least warn them of the jackasses in and out of office throughout history. Sometimes songs help us understand when there isn't understanding elsewhere, or at least they give a voice to otherwise frustrated, speechless, helpless feelings...

  9. Thank you, Isaac! I think a prime example of this issue is the Arcade Fire.

    In 2004, they gave us one of the best collections of music written in the modern age. It put life, death, love, happiness, sadness, and everything in between into a beautiful kaleidoscope of sound that broke hearts and kicked asses simultaneously.

    In 2007, they gave us the much hyped/anticipated Neon Bible, an album with cool ideas but a real clunker in terms of the magic that made funeral so good. Why?
    Lyrics like: "I don't wanna live in America no more" and "Who still believes in choice?". Come on, don't waste your genius writing political/senseless lyrics.
    The greatest insight comes from looking inside oneself.

  10. Music itself is an opinion...there are no set rules...there is an audience out there for just about any form of music
    I personally prefer John Lennon's "Imagine" over Paul McCartneys "Silly Love Songs"

    "Politics is not an artists medium"...Anyone who has seen Guernica by Pablo Picasso would probably never take such a statement seriously.

    There are people in this world who are artists that choose to create...and then there are people that choose to destroy. There are people that have the talent to create music and there are people that don't. The ones that cannot create music are often basically just critics. They sit around complaining about music although ironically they cannot create music themselves.

    Some of the most popular and influential artists from most genres of music contain social/political messages in their music

    Pop: The Beatles, Bruce Springstein, Neil Young, U2, Michael Jackson
    Folk: Bob Dylan
    Rock: Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down
    Reggae: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh
    Industrial: Nine Inch Nails
    Grunge: Nirvana
    Alternative Rock: Marilyn Manson
    Rap/Hip Hop: Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest
    Country: Toby Keith, the Dixie Chicks
    Punk Rock: The Sex Pistols, The Clash, NOFX, Operation Ivy, Rancid, the Suicide Machines (most punk bands in general)

    Some people listen to music because they like to dance to a beat or enjoy singing along to catchy songs that are designed towards mass appeal
    ...other people appreciate music that they can relate to that is meaningful (at least to them) or that they find to have powerful or intelligent content

    As a musician...I would never criticize an artist for singing a political song that they are passionate about rather I appreciate artists for having the guts to perform music that does not fit into certain standards or norms of expectation.