Sunday, April 4, 2010

OPINION : Music and Politics

I recently received an email from someone who was looking for my opinion regarding the questions below:
Do you think music today is more or less political than it was in the past?
How do you think musicians approach politics?
What musicians in the Canadian [indie] scene are the most political?
Do you find yourself addressing political issues in your blog?
Do you find that politics and music tend to go in hand in hand, or can there be music without politics?
Modern-day music is very youth-centric; do you find that this generation seems to be more nihilistic?
She asked a lot of questions, so she'll get a long answer! What do you think about the relationship between music and politics? How would you answer the questions above?

Here's what I replied:

I think it depends on what you define as political. In terms of opinions regarding who's in government, many musicians express their displeasure with current governments. For example, many artists, both BC-based and not, spoke up against the recent drastic cuts to arts funding by the BC Liberals. Many artists are vocally against the federal Conservative government because of Stephen Harper and several of his ministers' views on everything from their stances on same-sex marriages, to military presence abroad, to the seal hunt. It's not limited to Canadian politics either; Arcade Fire were open supporters of Obama during his presidential run, playing shows for his volunteers during the elections. So many artists were outspoken during the various American issues, such as California's Prop 8, the health care reform debate, and so on. Vancouver's Geoff Berner recorded a song, released free on his website, that was his Olympic anthem, which protested having the games due to mainly the homeless population and poverty in the downtown east side.

However, if you define political beyond the traditional sense of government, you'll find that almost every musician has a pet cause or platform that they're passionate about. For example, Tegan and Sara are big proponents for gender and queer issues, Broken Social Scene are fundraising for street youth, and Metric for prevention of trafficking of women. Arcade Fire were among the first to broach the devastation of the Haitian earthquakes, and Jason Collett is married to a social worker. It goes on and on and on, from the environment to poverty to preservation of arts and culture in a specific city. With such an emotional impact, many of these themes necessarily come across in their art.

As for how they approach and support their respective causes/platforms, many play shows with a certain percentage going toward specific charities/causes. For example, War Child Canada, a charity which specifically aims to protect children in war zones, has done a fantastic job in collaborating with artists in their Busking For Change series in major Canadian cities. The Vancouver edition happened back in January I believe, and artists such as Said the Whale, Elias, We Are the City and many more busked downtown to fundraise for War Child. Artists such as Jeremy Fisher have openly spoken about War Child and had volunteers soliciting donations at shows. Many artists also play fundraisers for local venues, organizations and causes, and many would note the importance of preserving a local culture.

Artists also speak out for/against things during interviews and shows. The media love controversy, and many of their opinions are often magnified when spoken to media sources. Many also keep personal blogs and websites to express their opinions about current issues. For example, a member of hardcore band Fucked Up recently wrote a thoughtful piece on the commercialization of popular music festival South by South West (SxSW) [ed. note: I still think the piece is legit even with the April Fools prank]. You'll find that when a band is successful, especially if their success is partially based off of insight in their music, people will seek out their opinion on issues.

Music has always been a form of protest and questioning. That's a core part of its power, and why bands such as Rage Against the Machine speak to people way beyond their prime years. The power of art is to move... whether to action or to contemplation. In that sense, I think music, being a form of communication with immense emotional power, is political. Even if it's not overtly so. For example, successful Quebec bands such as Malajube choose to sing in French rather than English although it would probably help them expand their audience. So music the art form, combined with music's culture (the identities music lovers adopt, the general ideological tendencies, being counter culture to some sort of norm) as well as musicians' personal choices all have political implications.

I occasionally write opinion pieces outside of reviews, but not often. I was critical of the funding cuts to arts and culture by the provincial government last year and blogged about it, but mainly that kind of stuff I save for Twitter or Facebook. I contribute also to a crowd-sourced Canadian music blog named North by East West ( and there are definitely opinionated people on there. A discussion can spring up about everything from equal representation of music from all parts of Canada (one of the reason for the blog's genesis) to whether you have to be hot to rock. CBC Radio 3's Lisa Christiansen does an incredible blog series called Extended Play which explores a lot of issues surrounding music which include politics.

I don't see as much youth-centrism in independent music as I do in mainstream music. Usually, bands have to really build up a base over time in order to have a solid presence in the indie scene. The most successful examples, such as Sam Roberts, Feist, Metric, Joel Plaskett, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire... generally are in their 30-40s. Most of them had played in bands since their early 20s (if not earlier), in many different bands, and moved numerous times before they had a solid fan base/got greater exposure like from an iPod commercial. That's not to say that there's not a lot of young indie bands that are successful, but an overnight teen sensation is unlikely to happen in the indie scene because there's not a dominant force pushing a specific band to be "hot" and get radio play and advertisement deals the way that happens in mainstream music.

I don't think it's the youth-centrism which contributes to our culture's nihilism. I think our pervasive doubt of authority, which is related to the postmodern rejection of a dominant world view, is something that we've been taught for a long time. How often have we been told to question every source in school by doing more research and doubt everything? So no, I don't think this current music culture is any more nihilistic. Our central authorities have been teaching us nihilism in the form of scientific skepticism for a while... isn't that ironic?