In the run up to the American Presidential Election, Ciaran Breslin looks at the increasingly nuanced role of music in politics
In the wake of Bruce Springsteen recently releasing a widely published open letter urging fans to re-elect Barack Obama, the popular Democratic sheen of liberality and cultural relevance that undoubtedly partly helped propel Obama to power four years ago lost a little more of it’s gloss. Back then, the senator from Illinois successfully captured the hearts and minds of generations of disenfranchised voters, creating a charge in so many previously politically torpid young people. The musical highs saw Aretha Franklin singing at the inauguration, Jay-Z developing a relationship with the president, performers across the world coming out in support of Obama, Bob Dylan performing a knowing rendition of The Times They Are a Changing at the Whitehouse. Now however, four years later, it’s ringing a little less inspirational. Recently released was Obama’s supposed campaign playlist, the songs that are getting him through the long days and nights on the campaign trail. Containing a boring and perfectly measured selection of inoffensive popular R’n’B, indie rock and pop music it felt a long way from the credible persona of coolness that Obama once managed to successfully cultivate. Worse still than the obviously broad and extremely disparate collection of artists presumably cunningly selected in the White House to strike a chord with as many swathes of voters as possible, were a couple of thinly veiled messages in the tracks: Roll With The Change by REO Speedwagon, Everyday America by Sugarland and (best of all) Let’s Stay Together by Al Green. The whole thing left something of a bad taste in the mouth, reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s claim during the last election that he liked the Arctic Monkeys because they “really woke you up in the morning”.
Similarly, Springsteen just doesn’t have the cultural cache he once did. The Boss’s latest letter reads like a carefully crafted political statement, attune to what the Obama campaign believe should and shouldn’t be mentioned. The reason he is such a useful supporter from the President’s point of view, is in his unparalleled cultural resonance across the United States in the past. However, the image of the blue collar rockstar in the ripped leather jacket, transcending class divides just doesn’t have the same vitality as it did in the seventies when its proprietor is making regular appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and embracing the most institutionalized of all American hierarchs in political rallies. This is not to suggest that artists need anarchistic or apolitical credentials to be appealing or relevant. Just that he no longer carries the same devotion as once he did. Instead he is simply thrusting whatever lingering social sway he has behind his own political opinions. It would be different perhaps if it felt like his music is actually soundtracking a political or social prevalence or some kind of movement, as it once did, but it doesn’t. When once we he told us of a country full of broken heroes on a last chance power drive, he’s now ponderously recounting the “removal of troops from the misguided and deceptive war in Iraq, and vigorously pursuing our real foreign enemies, especially the killing of Osama bin Laden.” Which sounds more socially charged, more eloquent, more inspiring?
Music as an art form does not sit easily with the direct engagement of the political system. In a world where music is becoming commoditized it is creativity and originality that is so precious to preserve which is not compatible when it is written directly for something governed by rules outside of the artistry itself, which impacts on artistic freedom. Bruce Springsteen could make people feel a million times more passionate and empowered with his lyrics than his stuffy political publications; you can’t exactly canvas with a seven inch single. Popular music, more so than ever before, is dictated by hidden agendas or intentions. The Black Eyed Peas, one of the last ten years most successful recording artists, are essentially bent on writing formulaic jingles for a variety of purposes. I Gotta Feeling, perhaps their most iconic and successful single was actually first released to trail CBS’s new television line up. Will I Am was another high profile supporter of Obama, his Yes I Can video watched nearly thirty million times on youtube and helping to secure Obama his place in the Whitehouse. Musically, artistically it was, I think most critics would agree, worthless. Politically however, it was extremely astute, as measured and functional as all of the Black Eyed Peas output.
Indeed, the more established old guard of American music are likely to support Mitt Romney, whose tax prerogatives are much more predisposed to the high earning power of the kind of bands who have come out in support, The Eagles for example.
One of Obama’s most culturally relevant and outspoken supporters, The National, perhaps represents the middle ground where music can tow the line. Matt Beringer from that band, in response to a question about the hate mail they have received for supporting the Presidents re-election campaign, recently clarified their position “I don’t actually think artists or musicians necessarily have a responsibility to do that. But in our case, the five of us…talked about it and we were like, ‘Yeah, it’s worth it.’” It is not a matter of responsibility, or civic duty of how best to yield whatever artistic talent one might possess to a disconnected end of getting someone elected. The National offer a powerfully introspective and intense brand of popular alternative-rock, the kind of music that one might expect of someone struggling with political ideals, and indeed the kind of music that might inspire to one to similarly struggle with them themselves. This is where the power of music and its potential relevance for politics lies. Bruce Springsteen might not be inspiring enough in his open letters to make someone decide how to vote, but his music certainly carries with it the potential for change, creating generations of people amenable to more conventional political wisdom. You won’t vote for Obama because you like The National, but in identifying with The National you are unconsciously buying into an artistic dynamic that will affect how you think in other spheres of life. Music is not necessarily without political or social charge in itself, but it must by its nature contain a subtler affect than simply canvassing. Indeed, it could be argued that the anarchy of punk music foreshadowed the downfall of the conservative Government in England, while Noel Gallagher in Downing Street brought brit-pop cool to a New Labour government years later. It is the subtlety of zetigesit that dictates cultural tides, harmonized by popular music. As a song once said: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.