There has been an argument circulating among right-wing traditional and social media ever since Beyoncé’s politically-charged Black Panther-inspired performance at Super Bowl 50’s halftime show. Her act brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and whipped up white fright faster than a KitchenAid mixer whips up heavy cream. It was powerful and brave moment reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s lyrical performance of Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit” at Café Society in 1939.
With Lady Gaga set to take the stage tonight, Trump supporters are biting their nails, exclaiming that she ought to remember her place and leave her politics at home. Did they forget that this is a woman who once donned a dress made out of meat to make a political statement? I think it’s safe to assume that we will all be getting a heaping side of activism to go with our chicken wings tonight.
The notion that “entertainers should remember they are there for our amusement, a monkey to dance when we grind the organ, nothing more and nothing less,” as one perplexed Bruce Springsteen fan from New Jersey wrote in response to The Boss’s recent criticisms of the Trump administration’s Muslim Travel Ban, is both naïve and philistine. It is also not surprising in this bad is the new good, ignorant is the new smart, and alternative facts are the new truth bizarro-America that we are now living in.
“But Musicians are not politicians or pundits. They don’t speak for me,” the argument continues. Now here we arrive at some truth. Musicians are neither politicians nor pundits, and for good reason. The very thought of Rush Limbaugh as lead singer of a heavy metal band (naturally), Anne Coulter playing lead guitar in a jam band, or Elizabeth Warren singing like a diva is ridiculous. It’s also why Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway musical parody was hilarious. And if musicians spoke for anyone but themselves they would be writing commercial jingles, not songs.
Disparaging art, especially as it pertains to popular music, as mere entertainment ignores the powerful effect songs have played throughout history. Since ancient times, artists have used both written and lyrical poetry to express political views that have inspired the political change. Aristophanes, the “father of comedy,” lambasted the populist demagogue Cleon, who bears more than a passing resemblance to our fearful leader, and Plato blamed his play, The Clouds, for Socrates’ trial and subsequent death. How’s that for mere entertainment?
Even classical musicians took a political stand. Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “Eroica” was originally called “Bonaparte” until news reached the composer that the French leader had assumed the title and style of emperor. “Now he will trample on all human rights only to humor his ambition; he will place himself above all others—become a tyrant!,” Beethoven famously declared as he tore the dedication from the title page of the score.
More recently, one only has to look at the music of the 1960s to see how culturally and politically influential musicians can be. It’s hard to imagine the fight for Civil Rights and the Vietnam War protests without the music of The Beatles, Woodie Guthrie, James Brown, Country Joe McDonald, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Neil Young, Credence Clearwater Revival, Sam Cooke, Joan Baez. Bob Dylan—one of the 20th century’s most popular musicians—won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This is a man whose enduring progressive anthem implored senators and congressmen to
“Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing.”
The political climate of the 1970s is reflected through lens the era’s most popular music. Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, Bob Marley, Gil-Scott Heron, and Marvin Gaye wrote the soundtrack to the injustice that was being a person of color in America, while
the rise and fall of British punk can be directly plotted against the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher.
The 1980s was full of excellent protest music. The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Phil Collins, and Midnight Oil took on LGBT issues, women’s rights, the Cold War, and the environment. The rise of hip-hop and rap became the new spoken word poetry tackling urban life, gang culture, and racial discrimination. The Dead Kennedys raged against Reagan while Bruce Springsteen, wrote “Born in the USA,” probably the most misunderstood political song of all time. Written as a bitter lament protesting the way returning Vietnam veterans were treated at home, The Boss was furious when the president briefly co-opted it as his 1984 campaign song.
Even with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War, music continued to challenge the politics and society. Public Enemy tackled Hollywood stereotypes of African Americans. Ani DiFranco sang out about feminism and gun control. Rage Against the Machine, Tupac, and NWA famously took on racism and police brutality 20 years before the formation of Black Lives Matter. Sinead O’Connor, another artist ahead of the times, famously protested child sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992. And speaking of Irish musicians, would The Troubles in Ireland have been put to an end with the Good Friday Agreement without U2 bringing international attention to the conflict?
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center ushered in a new era of protest music from The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake, Green Day, The Dixie Chicks, and M.I.A.
And the turbulent ‘10s have seen a rise in political polarization, and with it has come a collective turning up the volume of protest music. On a lengthy Instagram post following the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, The Roots’ Questlove called upon the hip-hop community “to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in. I don’t mean breathless race to the finish on who makes the more banging ‘F— Tha Police’ sequel. I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don’t have to be boring or non danceable or ready made for the next Olympics. They just have to speak truth.” Lil Wayne, Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamar, and Nas are just a few of the household names who responded with haunting songs full of pain and frustration.
So the recent examples of Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, and Eminem singing their truth to power should come as no surprise. Tonight, Lady Gaga will bring her politics to the Super Bowl stage. Anyone who expects anything else hasn’t been listening. Not to music, anyway.