In the age of uber-celebrity, many musicians fail to engage on a meaningful level. We explore why that’s not okay.
Art has an emotive power that supersedes online news feeds and newspapers, allowing people to be outspoken in a way others can’t. But while famous visual artists remain engaged with socio-political issues (e.g. Ai WeiWei), the artists that reach millions daily have become less political over the last decades: musicians. 2016 was rife with stimulating, albeit challenging, subject matter, but it’s barely visible in the mainstream musical landscape. The politically opinionated and vocal musicians of the 60s, 70s and 80s are now a rarity. Punks and other non-mainstream artists perhaps, but not those with mass appeal. As Jeb Lund, writing for Billboard, pointed out in a recent article, political music is deemed too dangerous by most artists and their record labels. Clear political stances risk alienating audiences, either because people don’t share the artist’s opinion or because they find the music inaccessible and dull.
Though some celebrities, like Katy Perry (who Lund claimed would not be ‘not be releasing a single about him [Trump]), are bucking the trend. She reportedly scrapped half of her 4th album after the election of Donald Trump to include songs dealing with his election. But it is hard to imagine Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber singing a politically barbed song. After all, their major objective is to sell their music; a sad admittance considering the influence available to them due to the size and dedication of their fan base.
In a recent interview, the multi-talented Moby criticised artists who choose to be silent: “If musicians are not being outspoken, they better have a pretty good reason why […] by all means be milquetoast and don’t have an opinion. But if the choice becomes using your audience to affect important change or buy a bigger house in the South of France, then the house in the South of France can go fuck itself.”
According to Spotify, Drake and Rihanna were also the most streamed artists along with Justin Bieber, Sia, Adele, Kanye West, Ariana Grande and Coldplay. Admittedly, Kanye West used some of his gigs to endorse Donald Trump in a rather confused fashion and Coldplay sampled Barack Obama on their latest record. But in general popular musicians write and sing about love, heartbreak, and parties.
There are notable exceptions, of course. Beyoncé with her concept album Lemonade; her sister Solange with A Seat At The Table; and several other black artists speaking up against racial prejudice and marginalisation . Then there was 30 Days, 30 Songs project initiated by author Dave Eggers (The Circle). “As artists, we are united in our desire to speak out against the ignorant, divisive, and hateful campaign of Donald Trump”, the organisers stated on the website that released a song per day by “Artists for a Trump-free America”. Including songs by the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, REM and Moby, the music dealt with every deplorable aspect of the President-Elect’s life and politics. Evidently, it was not enough, but it still represents a step in the right direction.
In the UK, there was Anohni’s critically acclaimed Hopelessness, dubbed by the Guardian as “a radical album for a time of crisis”, featuring songs dealing with ecocide, Syria and Obama. Bastille’s album Wild World is about how the trials of life in 2016, surrounded by fake news and constant surveillance. Their song The Currents refers to Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and other such right-wing populists, putting into words what many of us feel and think: “Still living in the currents you create, still living in the pool of your mistakes, won’t you stop firing up the crazies?”
The world is filled with overwhelming horrors, and music and art in general can help us with that. With social media, musicians can keep their public persona and their music separate, which is certainly better than remaining silent about important matters. And in a world where people crave likes above all else, it’s hard to be authentic and honest. It would be naïve to think that protest music is the ultimate remedy, but music is perhaps unparalleled in its ability to sway public opinion: it can sow the seeds of opinion, undermine demagogues and nurture passion and ardour. Music can help lay the foundations upon which strong resistance is based.