Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Politics and Music

James McMurtry wrote a commentary which has just been published in Billboard Magazine called "Musicians: Keep the Politics in your Songs", and you can read it on his blog - it's a good read. (EDIT: I just found out that you have to log in to MySpace to read it, so I'm going to post it here. If you want to leave him comments, then you will have to follow the link and log in)

Mar 18 - Musicians: Keep the Politics In Your Songs (Billboard Magazine)

Once at a show of mine in Plano, Texas, a woman took it upon herself to dance around in front of the stage with a handwritten sign that read, "Keep Politics Out of Music." She had not liked the anti-Bush rant that I had inserted into the song "Levelland." I wonder what she thought of the works of Woody Guthrie, John Lennon or Bob Dylan? And would she have been equally as offended by the sentiments expressed in the songs of Merle Haggard, Toby Keith or Clint Black? Was it politics in music that she objected to, or more specifically, my politics in my music? I probably lost a fan that day, not the first or the last.

I used to try to keep politics out of my music not for fear of losing fans - I had no fans - but rather for fear that my songs would become sermons. I did not want to be seen as another mediocre folkie up there preaching with righteous conviction to mask the fact that his songs sucked.

It was a while before I realized that it is possible to write a good politically motivated song. Steve Earle's "The Ballad of Billy Austin," written from the point of view of a death-row inmate, showed me that it could be done. It is a great song first, a biting social commentary second. Kris Kristofferson's work has the same qualityit gets his point across without sacrificing his art. Oddly, when I first heard Kristofferson's songs, I did not notice the political statements in them. I was a child then, and the Vietnam War so thoroughly colored the world I came into that I could not even see it. The war was like your grandmother's kitchen wallpaper you had seen since you were 3 and no longer noticed. The sight of those glum-faced, young soldiers in the airport was perfectly normal to me.

The soldiers are back in the airports, but they are older now. I did not want my son's generation to grow numb to the sight of them, to become "blas about war," as Lennon once said. So I took a chance and put out a song called "We Can't Make It Here"put it out first as a free download. I received a lot of nasty e-mails right off the bat, but the download got more attention than anything I have put on a CD in the last 10 years.

Now, a year and a half later, WXRT Chicago, a station that has not added a James McMurtry song since the early '90s, is playing its own edit of "We Can't Make It Here" and doing quite well with it. (Yes, I am indeed blowing my own horn here. Somebody has to since my last manager threw up his hands and ran screaming back to Connecticut.)

WKIT, Stephen King's classic rock station in Bangor, Maine, was on the song as soon as it hit the Internet. Maine has lost 30,000 jobs to outsourcing, one of the facets of modern American life that the protagonist in my song complains about.

You could say that my little song became a hit in Bangor. That is good for me, but not so good for Bangor. "We Can't Make It Here" is not popular in Bangor or anywhere else by virtue of it being a great song. Its popularity, like that of most popular songs, lies in the fact that people are hearing their own lives in it. The lives they are hearing in this song cannot be much fun right now.

In a recent article in The Austin Chronicle, interviewer Andy Langer said to Kris Kristofferson, "Some people say the smart thing for folks like you and the Dixie Chicks is just to shut up and sing."

Kristofferson's response was, "I would say back, 'Shut up and listen.' "

Kristofferson is not the darling of country radio that he once was, but he has not gone away. He has continued to use his voice, and his power as a performer has only increased. Last year at South by Southwest, the Continental Club was dead silent when he sang. Even the people on the sidewalk watching through the open door were silent.

But, sadly, most of us so-called artists are afraid to use our voices, afraid to take a stand for fear of committing career suicide. We have to get over that fear because in succumbing to it we become invisible, and invisibility, for an artist, is true career death.

We cannot please everybody and we should not bother trying. It is not our job to be loved. It is our job to be remembered.


He talks about a woman who carried a sign at one of his shows that said "Keep politics out of music". hmmm. There's always been politics in music, it can't be escaped in this world. Even if you just talk about being oppressed, poor, unemployed, overemployed, owing your soul to the company store, workin' on the railroad, or the star-spangled banner by the dawn's early light there's some kind of politics in there... unless it's an instrumental [grin] and even then sometimes it shows up in the title or dedication.

Besides, if you can't speak your mind and express your opinions, then where's the freedom? The whole concept of music and art and theatre just goes to hell... it doesn't exist. That's not a world where I want to live.

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1 comment:

Abram said...

I say keep the politics in music! Some of the best songs out of the 1960's are veiled messages about Vietnam and civil rights.