January 23, 2018
I’ll make a long story short: politics are deeply embedded in music and culture.
When N.W.A. released their album “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, the explosive song was met with strong backlash from those who supported the police, despite multiple accounts of police violence against minorities at the time.
But the theme of musicians responding to turbulence in our culture is nothing new and even continues on today. From Pete Seeger’s revival of folk music criticizing capitalism in the ‘50s, to Hozier’s response to the Catholic church’s negative attitudes to homosexuality, responding to politics in music is something that should be embraced.
The point is this: if you catch yourself wishing away the political sentiment in music (or any other work of art), consider first who the song is for.
What is the subject? Is the song written about you, or people like you?
Commenting on his 1966 album, “Dangerous Songs!?,” Seeger encouraged his audience to form their own opinions.
“You’ll have to decide for yourself about all these songs: who they are dangerous to, and what for, and whether they are dangerous to you,” he said.
“We all know there are two sides to every question. There are two sides to a piece of flypaper, too, but it makes a great difference to the fly which side he lands on.”
To even say the phrase, “leave your politics out of music” is a politically-charged action, as well as an ignorant one.
It is easy to dismiss songs that we disagree with as “propaganda.” But I implore you to realize that calling a work “propaganda” is not exactly a critique of the work itself.
“There are two sides to every question,” can be reworked to state, “there are two answers to every question, and one of them is ‘it’s propaganda’” – but also that dismissing a work of art strictly on ideological grounds means that the creator has a point and purpose.
There is always a purpose for a work of art to exist. The political environment of the time, wars, international tension, poverty, the economy — I can go on.
Simply, the reason why people are surprised to hear songs that target them is because they come from a past of privilege and complacency.
When people heard the second song on “Straight Outta Compton,” they were shocked. Some of N.W.A’s audience were in a privileged position of being relatively safe from police violence. At times, they might have been silent as unnecessary police violence went on.
People were opposed to Pete Seeger’s anti-capitalist lyrics because they come from the privileged position of relative wealth and complacency in the face of America’s poverty.
For what other reason would you dismiss a work of art that you deem to be “propaganda” than that it is an accurate portrayal of something bad you as a person are complicit in, consciously or not?
Each and every political statement intended by the creator of a work of art has its reason for being there.
In the case of songs that offend you, sometimes that reason is you, or people like you. But that statement doesn’t apply hold true for songs that are racist, sexist or derogatory.
It takes one who is willing to look into why they’re offended to help the audience the song is for.