Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…


Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity.

Weinstein’s essay explores her search for “the truth” about rock music as a form of protest. As she notes, there may be protest songs being written and performed by artists, but the hegemony of media control by conservative (read corporate interest) interests means that such music simply won’t get played. That being the case, musicians who are, to be honest, interested in having their music played by radio stations or otherwise publicized (despite public – and former Beatle – outrage at Nike’s use of the John Lennon penned “Revolution” to sell sneakers, most musical artists want their music put before the public) so that they can profit by it, tend to write material aimed at achieving those goals. Thus, Weinstein argues, protest music is effectively marginalized by the very artists expected to offer it as commentary.  To paraphrase the late Rick James, hegemony is a hell of a thing to overcome. Weinstein’s sad conclusion is that because musicians need the media and the media says “you must not protest against (insert issue here) if you want airplay,” issues that might get addressed through music are avoided or relegated to “deep cuts” status – and this effectively stifled.

Jerry Rodnitsky’s essay suggests that folk music, traditionally the genre most closely associated with protest songs, exists a s a cyclical form of music that rises and falls in popularity (and, he suggests, relevancy) as social or political conditions require. Rodnitsky, though, seems to stretch his point past credibility. How one can suggest that the songs of a Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs (or Dylan, though he has always been more interested in his own stardom than in social causes, even if his work with civil rights in the early 1960’s suggests otherwise) are paralleled by the gentle, basically ineffectual (except as entertainment) satire of a group like The Capitol Steps? Rodnitsky seems to be reaching out of hope more than conviction to offer such a claim.

Mark Willhardt, who does the closest examination of individual artists in his essay on Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg, tries to redefine that ever arguable term used often in discussion of popular music, authenticity. In doing so he undermines perhaps the key element that make each of these artists interesting: their avowed stances as social and political critics. What emerges eventually from the discussion is both fascinating and disturbing: Bragg, truly a politically invested (and politicized) artist, ends up becoming more of a talking head and music historian than the rabble rouser he set out to be; Shocked, a victim of a terrible home life during her childhood that has left her deeply scarred emotionally, seems to have become more interested in the simple (though important) matter of artistic control of her career and material even as her troubled past seems to keep her in a sort of perpetual adolescent rebellion against any sort of authority (especially in her musical career) which she seems to see in some twisted way as “parental.” One can – almost must – see Bragg’s and Shocked’s careers as protest artists as derailed, in the former case by co-option masked as “acceptance,” in the latter by focus on the personal to the exclusion of the social.

Marvin Gaye, soul singer, labor activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

That brings us to John Street’s essay on pop stars as politicos. Street takes a careful approach and focuses instead of on the simpler (but narrower) question of “How politically active has Artist X been?” on the wider question of “How is a musical artist able to be successful as a political activist?” This is smartly done, for it allows Street to discuss the role of the pop star in the larger culture and what sorts of advantages might accrue to a pop star that might give him/her credibility to act on behalf of social and political causes. By focusing on the work of those artists who have acted primarily out of humanitarian impulses, such as Harry Belafonte and Bono, Street is able to discuss the ways in which such artists are able to summon accrued “moral capital” (both have been well known for writing and performing songs that address social and political issues insightfully) that gains them the ear of those with political power and helps them have some success as agents of social and political change. Perhaps the most interesting case of this that Street notes is that of Marvin Gaye who, in his contentious relationship with Berry Gordy and Motown Records, was able to use his position as a black artist working for a black owned company to illuminate unfair labor practices that could not be dismissed with the “racism” claim of African Americans being exploited by the white power structure. Gaye, Street argues, was able to make better workplace treatment a matter of socio-economic importance unrelated to race issues.  Such achievements deserve more notice, Street insists.

As for Belafonte and Bono, Street notes that they did achieve some success as spokespersons for humanitarian issues. But, Street notes, in both their cases, their political naivete was occasionally exploited – and sometimes their celebrity status got in the way of their ability to achieve all that perhaps they could have had they been primarily known as social activism figures rather than as pop stars. The lesson, Street concludes, is that it’s good for pop stars to be interested in and active about social and political issues, but it’s crucial that they understand the issues – and the politics surrounding those issues – to avoid getting used for some politico’s less than admirable purposes.

The intersection of art and politics is always a complicated and often a dangerous one, these essays conclude. The struggle between the claims of social and political issues and the claims of art must be carefully negotiated. The most difficult negotiation, however, might be between the artist’s desire to create worthy art and the desire to address social or political issues within a culture. That negotiation is one that very few artists successfully make in every case.

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