Politics And Music: Joy To The Ears Or Painful Noise?
By Alex Catarinella
To most voters, knowing presidential candidates and what they stand for before the election is essential. Many want to know their stances on subjects like health care or the war in Iraq. But how about learning that Barack Obama listens to Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones while John McCain prefers ABBA and The Beach Boys?
Music plays quite a role in the upcoming presidential election, according to Blender Magazine, which recently released the top 10 music picks of Obama and McCain. There’s a long history with political expression in music, but of late, musicians are making their voices heard louder than ever before.
But are they making beautiful music, or is it time to turn the microphone off?
Kip Berman, 28, of Brooklyn’s indie-rock band “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” thinks while musicians should do whatever they can to contribute, they shouldn’t expect much. “Even Oprah, supposedly the most powerful media figure in America, can't really impact people to such a huge extent,” said Berman. “People might buy a book she recommends, but it's likely their political views are a bit more entrenched than their literary curiosity.”
However, one’s musical tastes may indicate their political views, Berman believes. “If you like Nirvana, chances are you’re not going to grow up to be a fascist,” Berman quips. “I don't know that an ardent Bush supporter listening to Green Day's ‘American Idiot’ is suddenly going to reassess their worldview. However, the process by which someone gets turned on to Green Day, or Punk in general, is a lot more important to the kind of person they become,” Berman added.
Neil Scibelli, 22, an indie-musician and a student at Marymount Manhattan College, thinks musicians should stick to singing because “sometimes musicians’ popularity just wins voters over, rather than the importance of the actual issue,” he said.
Scibelli admits that being a musician doesn’t equate to political knowledge. Politically-charged expression can be a risky career move for musicians. The Dixie Chicks come to mind. Their songs were pulled from some radio play lists after singer Natalie Maines told concert goers she was “ashamed” President Bush was from Texas.
Universal Record’s recording artists Your Vegas lead singer and Obama supporter, Coyle Girelli, 25, believes that political expression in music “will always be important,” that music can be educational and is “an expression of being human.”
“People’s views in today’s world are strong,” Girelli says. “There is so much wrong with it, so much injustice, so much greed and violence from the sandy streets of Afghanistan to downtown LA. From the economy, to the environment, health care to war, we are at a stage where a serious change is needed. People know this and sometimes they need a voice, someone they respect and trust and who, through music, expresses how they feel,” Girelli said.
While Girelli admits political expression in music can be a “curse” at times, he insists that “the most important thing is that their voice is always heard.”
Well-known musicians are able to have a voice much more so than lesser-known ones. Besides the star-studded, positive message of Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” video clip, which Your Vegas’ Girelli calls a “beautiful, classy and a deeply inspiring piece of art,” other musicians are opting for a more controversial approach.
Madonna, who is no stranger to courting controversy, compares McCain to Adolph Hitler and Obama to Mahatma Gandhi in her current “Sticky and Sweet” international tour. In rapper Ludacris’ case, he supports Obama in his video clip “Politics (Obama Is Here)” but also blasts Senator Hillary Clinton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Bush and McCain. In the song, Ludacris refers to Clinton as a “bitch” and says “McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed...Yeah, I said it, 'cause Bush is mentally handicapped...You the worst of all 43 presidents.”
Obama, who once told Rolling Stone he was a fan of the rapper, is now doing damage control. His spokesman Bill Burton says that while the rapper is a “talented individual,” he should be “ashamed of these lyrics.” Burton continues: “As Barack Obama has said many, many times in the past, rap lyrics today too often perpetuate misogyny, materialism, and degrading images that he doesn't want his daughters or any children exposed to."
Following months of unofficial music videos posted on YouTube supporting Obama, the presidential candidate recently released an official campaign soundtrack. “Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement” features Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Sheryl Crow and others. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds told The Guardian, “It’s ironic that on a day when the economy is in turmoil, Barack Obama fails to release an economic plan, but instead chooses a celebrity rock album.”
McCain, who hasn’t had nearly as much musical support and compares Barack’s “celebrity” to Britney Spears in a campaign video, was asked by Democratic musician John Mellencamp to discontinue using his songs during his campaign trail. Songs that were used at McCain events included “Our Country”, in which Mellencamp sings “There’s room enough here for science to live, and there’s room enough for religion to forgive.”
Mellencamp's publicist Bob Merlis doubted McCain could relate to his songs. “You know, here’s a guy running around saying, ‘I’m a true conservative’ ” Merlis told The Associated Press. “Well, if you’re such a true conservative, why are you playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as left of center?”
According to the Barack Obama Music Coalition, “Music has been a potent force for social transformation since the days of Plato who declared, ‘When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.’”
Mark Redfern, who formed the magazine Under the Radar, agrees. He addresses the intersection of music in politics in several of his magazine issues. Redfern told Gen Art Pulse concerning him and his wife’s 2004 protest issue that “One of us came up with the idea to photograph musicians holding protest signs of their own making. Not only did it look cool, it gave the musicians another avenue to express themselves to our readers.”
But perhaps politically-charged music should be looked at more closely. Berman of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart says that because this campaign has focused on cultural divides, music has become symbolic of this rift.
“I mean, think of the music that Obama probably listened to growing up and think about the music of John McCain’s generation, it’s so culturally removed from each other. It’s like, people are either going to vote for a candidate who thinks that Elvis’ hip gyrations would lead to the moral downfall of America, or one that can quote Jay-Z.”
With Obama and McCain sharing a single similarity in their Blender Magazine Top 10 Music pick with Frank Sinatra, politically charged music and its influence on the upcoming election has yet to be determined.