Politics and Music

“Politics is for old men.” Thus a Serbian friend informed me when I visited Belgrade shortly before everything fell apart. He wanted me to send him Beatles albums not easily obtainable at the time so he could listen to “happy music,” by which he meant just music. Unfortunately, politics is for young men (and women) too, and although good music uncorrupted by politics can still be found, bad music with a political or subversive agenda abounds.

As Michael Walsh argues in his magisterial The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, “we must see music and art as separate and apart from politics, no matter the quotidian circumstances that give them birth.” Certainly, aside from military marches and national anthems, music is for the most part not the right medium for political feelings, commentary and themes -- except indirectly, as in Country and Western, when the singer expresses his or her love of country or commitment to traditional ways of life.

Far too much music exists to peddle a political or disruptive message, often a predictably leftist screed. Historian Victor Davis Hanson ruefully states in an essay titled Epitaph for a Dying Culture that many people now skip popular music “on the expectation that it is not just vulgar and foul, but incoherently politicalized.” As I pointed out in an earlier article for American Thinker, typical examples are furnished by such truly execrable groups as Rage Against the Machine, the violence-prone deathcore Slipknot (whose fans are known as “maggots”), the ludicrously named Prophets of Rage, the ostentatiously punky Red Hot Chili Peppers, along with Vampire Weekend and Foster the People shilling for socialist hack Bernie Sanders, the manically feminist co-ed War On Women advancing its new wave feminism agenda, and the hardcore rocker band Stick To Your Guns, the latter dedicating their piece of cacophonic rubbish “What Choice Did You Give Us” to the families of hooligans like Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin.

Let’s not forget the wildly popular Maroon V.  Featured on the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show, Maroon V is a band characterized by wretched lyrics (“yeah” and “uh” and “oooh” are notable phatics), hackneyed semi-melodies, lots of tats, feminist bona fides and refugee-friendly sentiment -- “Liberation not Deportation” is lead singer Adam Levine’s printed mantra. The foreground in the videos of their hit song “Girls Like You” feature socially prominent women wearing T-shirts festooned with identity group and “social justice” slogans.

YouTube screen grab

That lesbian Ellen DeGeneres and radical Muslima Ilhan Omar are among the dippy terpsichoreans is not unexpected. The result is laughable, especially DeGeneres hopping up and down like an animated pogo stick. There can be little doubt that what we are observing is PC motivated musical trash.

These are all instances of music gone rancid with political advocacy, almost always of the jejune leftist stamp. Unsurprisingly, many of these rockers and folkers become social justice warriors, peace ambassadors, philanthropic missionaries and rabid environmentalists -- without, however, studying the real science or manifold complexities behind the causes they embrace. Like Hollywood entertainers and many national politicians, they are not remarkable for intelligence.

Neil Young’s well-known bloviations on social justice and environmental issues fall into the same bottomless pit of popular claptrap. Ditto Bono, whose well-publicized charity work has done more for Bono than for the world’s poor. As Rolling Stone informs us, Bono “became a major business mogul, cofounding Elevation Partners to invest in entertainment and media businesses, one being the Forbes Media group, another being a company that makes war-simulation video games.” One thinks, too, of Cat Stevens whose conversion to the “religion of peace” as Yusuf Islam did not prevent him from calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the dazzling and hilarious The Satanic Verses.

Billy Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, approved of North Korea’s mad dictator Kim Jong-un over his own president, Donald Trump. The antisemitic bigot Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame, embarked on a vendetta against Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East quagmire. Another case in point is rapper Eminem, whose neuroleptic lyrics coupled with his intellectual vacancy render both his music and his politics fatuously pubescent. He is now vying for attention by dissing Donald Trump while mangling the English language.

Indeed, the farrago of sanctimonious juvenilia that disguises itself as music, from metal to protopunk to grunge and glam, often affecting to be socially conscious, is an affront to both common sense and musical sense. As for what we call “rave music” -- acid, techno, trance, liquid funk and other subgenres -- it is not really music at all but a kind of jungle orgiastic or lupercalian debauch meant to stimulate a kinesthetic reaction.

The same is true of rap, the vulgarity and infantile babbling of which are symptoms of an increasingly degenerate culture. A form of social and political protest against the perceived racial disparities embedded in the culture, it is certainly not music. Its lyrics are obscene bordering on depraved and its melodic structure is non-existent, though it exhibits a rant-and-chant primal cadence. It is, in effect, one of the militant wings of leftist political culture whose purpose is the destabilization of traditional mores.

Some might claim that the anti-establishment protest songs of the Sixties (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, etc.) demonstrate that politics and music can indeed go together, but I would contend that the lyrics of most of these songs are mortifyingly insipid and ideologically faddish. Moreover, though they may once have been effective as political statement, they tend to be musically ephemeral -- who hums them now? The one exception to the rule I can think of is Pete Seeger, a bore as an advocate for partisan causes but co-composer of some lovely and memorable songs (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer”).

The Canadian group GY!BE (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), like its American and German screamo counterparts, is a purveyor of ostentatiously bad music that relies on special effects like mind-numbing decibels, near total darkness and garishly spotlit films. As spokesmen for the power chord genre, the troupe argues that “All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls…It's what music is for, right?” Wrong. They go on to assert that the function of music is “to distract or confront, or both at the same time.” Wrong again.

One thinks of Dixie Chick Natalie Maine’s comment to Rolling Stone: “We always felt like we were searching for ways to make an impact outside of music.” The band’s denunciation of President Bush for apparently shaming Texas, their rejection of patriotism, their feminist avowals in “Sin Wagon” (“Feel like Delilah lookin’ for a Samson”) and “Goodbye Earl” (it’s OK to kill an abusive husband -- nothing about abusive wives) are disturbing. Interestingly, one of the band’s most influential backers was the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. Aside from beat and rhythm and the fact that they are an all-girl band (albeit with male back-up), the songs in themselves are not particularly memorable or distinctive.

Music must remain vigilant. The drivel of much contemporary popular music has surrendered character, melody and memorability in the service of dubious political and “social justice” objectives. When music turns to propaganda, solicitation, apology or imprecation rather than joy, celebration, reflection or even melancholy, it has lost its soul.

I am tempted to make an exception for Billy Cool and his fledgling band ‘55MAGAton, which Mark Ellis describes as “heavy-ish rock and roll, with a southern flavor” and Billy depicts as “satiric [and] pro-Trump.” Judging from the videos, he is talented and witty, as well as politically savvy. “The obvious potential hazard,” he notes, “is the radical left… It’s a shame that the current political climate essentially limits free speech.” Intelligent satire, amusing lyrics and capable musicianship go some way to countenancing political content, but the horizon is narrow and the prospects generally ephemeral. (Another exception involves the parodic genius of Tom Lehrer, but his satire, as funny as it was controversial, cast a wide net, dealing with a plethora of topical subjects. For all its brilliance, it remains a niche phenomenon, and not to my purpose here.)

Plato banished music from his oligarchic Republic for corrupting the youth, a classical fatwa seconded by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who abolished music from his Republic as encouraging frivolity and stupefaction. The equally totalitarian left has not so much expunged music from the polity as debased it almost past recognition, precisely for the purpose of promoting stupefaction. But the intention remains the same, the creation on the one hand of an indoctrinated and docile populace and, on the other, of a cadre of doctrinal guerillas. Good music in any genre opens the mind and speaks to the heart. Political music, promoting the memes and shibboleths of the era, whether of fascist or communist or anarchistic orientation, closes the mind and stultifies the heart. In most music of this nature the message is heavy and the sentiment is trite. It may make for interesting theatre, but not much of lasting good can come of it.

The trouble is multiple -- the singer, the song and the infatuated audience -- but anyone who wishes to make truly beautiful music must come by it honestly regardless of its reception, indifferent to the fashions and fetishes of the day and free of chronic self-obsession -- at least in the moment of composition. Renouncing what has become an amalgam of narcissism and sanctimoniousness, the maker of songs must speak to what is permanent in the human heart and soul. Caveat cantor.

“Politics is for old men.” Thus a Serbian friend informed me when I visited Belgrade shortly before everything fell apart. He wanted me to send him Beatles albums not easily obtainable at the time so he could listen to “happy music,” by which he meant just music. Unfortunately, politics is for young men (and women) too, and although good music uncorrupted by politics can still be found, bad music with a political or subversive agenda abounds.

As Michael Walsh argues in his magisterial The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, “we must see music and art as separate and apart from politics, no matter the quotidian circumstances that give them birth.” Certainly, aside from military marches and national anthems, music is for the most part not the right medium for political feelings, commentary and themes -- except indirectly, as in Country and Western, when the singer expresses his or her love of country or commitment to traditional ways of life.

Far too much music exists to peddle a political or disruptive message, often a predictably leftist screed. Historian Victor Davis Hanson ruefully states in an essay titled Epitaph for a Dying Culture that many people now skip popular music “on the expectation that it is not just vulgar and foul, but incoherently politicalized.” As I pointed out in an earlier article for American Thinker, typical examples are furnished by such truly execrable groups as Rage Against the Machine, the violence-prone deathcore Slipknot (whose fans are known as “maggots”), the ludicrously named Prophets of Rage, the ostentatiously punky Red Hot Chili Peppers, along with Vampire Weekend and Foster the People shilling for socialist hack Bernie Sanders, the manically feminist co-ed War On Women advancing its new wave feminism agenda, and the hardcore rocker band Stick To Your Guns, the latter dedicating their piece of cacophonic rubbish “What Choice Did You Give Us” to the families of hooligans like Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin.

Let’s not forget the wildly popular Maroon V.  Featured on the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show, Maroon V is a band characterized by wretched lyrics (“yeah” and “uh” and “oooh” are notable phatics), hackneyed semi-melodies, lots of tats, feminist bona fides and refugee-friendly sentiment -- “Liberation not Deportation” is lead singer Adam Levine’s printed mantra. The foreground in the videos of their hit song “Girls Like You” feature socially prominent women wearing T-shirts festooned with identity group and “social justice” slogans.

YouTube screen grab

That lesbian Ellen DeGeneres and radical Muslima Ilhan Omar are among the dippy terpsichoreans is not unexpected. The result is laughable, especially DeGeneres hopping up and down like an animated pogo stick. There can be little doubt that what we are observing is PC motivated musical trash.

These are all instances of music gone rancid with political advocacy, almost always of the jejune leftist stamp. Unsurprisingly, many of these rockers and folkers become social justice warriors, peace ambassadors, philanthropic missionaries and rabid environmentalists -- without, however, studying the real science or manifold complexities behind the causes they embrace. Like Hollywood entertainers and many national politicians, they are not remarkable for intelligence.

Neil Young’s well-known bloviations on social justice and environmental issues fall into the same bottomless pit of popular claptrap. Ditto Bono, whose well-publicized charity work has done more for Bono than for the world’s poor. As Rolling Stone informs us, Bono “became a major business mogul, cofounding Elevation Partners to invest in entertainment and media businesses, one being the Forbes Media group, another being a company that makes war-simulation video games.” One thinks, too, of Cat Stevens whose conversion to the “religion of peace” as Yusuf Islam did not prevent him from calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the dazzling and hilarious The Satanic Verses.

Billy Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, approved of North Korea’s mad dictator Kim Jong-un over his own president, Donald Trump. The antisemitic bigot Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame, embarked on a vendetta against Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East quagmire. Another case in point is rapper Eminem, whose neuroleptic lyrics coupled with his intellectual vacancy render both his music and his politics fatuously pubescent. He is now vying for attention by dissing Donald Trump while mangling the English language.

Indeed, the farrago of sanctimonious juvenilia that disguises itself as music, from metal to protopunk to grunge and glam, often affecting to be socially conscious, is an affront to both common sense and musical sense. As for what we call “rave music” -- acid, techno, trance, liquid funk and other subgenres -- it is not really music at all but a kind of jungle orgiastic or lupercalian debauch meant to stimulate a kinesthetic reaction.

The same is true of rap, the vulgarity and infantile babbling of which are symptoms of an increasingly degenerate culture. A form of social and political protest against the perceived racial disparities embedded in the culture, it is certainly not music. Its lyrics are obscene bordering on depraved and its melodic structure is non-existent, though it exhibits a rant-and-chant primal cadence. It is, in effect, one of the militant wings of leftist political culture whose purpose is the destabilization of traditional mores.

Some might claim that the anti-establishment protest songs of the Sixties (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, etc.) demonstrate that politics and music can indeed go together, but I would contend that the lyrics of most of these songs are mortifyingly insipid and ideologically faddish. Moreover, though they may once have been effective as political statement, they tend to be musically ephemeral -- who hums them now? The one exception to the rule I can think of is Pete Seeger, a bore as an advocate for partisan causes but co-composer of some lovely and memorable songs (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer”).

The Canadian group GY!BE (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), like its American and German screamo counterparts, is a purveyor of ostentatiously bad music that relies on special effects like mind-numbing decibels, near total darkness and garishly spotlit films. As spokesmen for the power chord genre, the troupe argues that “All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls…It's what music is for, right?” Wrong. They go on to assert that the function of music is “to distract or confront, or both at the same time.” Wrong again.

One thinks of Dixie Chick Natalie Maine’s comment to Rolling Stone: “We always felt like we were searching for ways to make an impact outside of music.” The band’s denunciation of President Bush for apparently shaming Texas, their rejection of patriotism, their feminist avowals in “Sin Wagon” (“Feel like Delilah lookin’ for a Samson”) and “Goodbye Earl” (it’s OK to kill an abusive husband -- nothing about abusive wives) are disturbing. Interestingly, one of the band’s most influential backers was the disgraced Harvey Weinstein. Aside from beat and rhythm and the fact that they are an all-girl band (albeit with male back-up), the songs in themselves are not particularly memorable or distinctive.

Music must remain vigilant. The drivel of much contemporary popular music has surrendered character, melody and memorability in the service of dubious political and “social justice” objectives. When music turns to propaganda, solicitation, apology or imprecation rather than joy, celebration, reflection or even melancholy, it has lost its soul.

I am tempted to make an exception for Billy Cool and his fledgling band ‘55MAGAton, which Mark Ellis describes as “heavy-ish rock and roll, with a southern flavor” and Billy depicts as “satiric [and] pro-Trump.” Judging from the videos, he is talented and witty, as well as politically savvy. “The obvious potential hazard,” he notes, “is the radical left… It’s a shame that the current political climate essentially limits free speech.” Intelligent satire, amusing lyrics and capable musicianship go some way to countenancing political content, but the horizon is narrow and the prospects generally ephemeral. (Another exception involves the parodic genius of Tom Lehrer, but his satire, as funny as it was controversial, cast a wide net, dealing with a plethora of topical subjects. For all its brilliance, it remains a niche phenomenon, and not to my purpose here.)

Plato banished music from his oligarchic Republic for corrupting the youth, a classical fatwa seconded by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who abolished music from his Republic as encouraging frivolity and stupefaction. The equally totalitarian left has not so much expunged music from the polity as debased it almost past recognition, precisely for the purpose of promoting stupefaction. But the intention remains the same, the creation on the one hand of an indoctrinated and docile populace and, on the other, of a cadre of doctrinal guerillas. Good music in any genre opens the mind and speaks to the heart. Political music, promoting the memes and shibboleths of the era, whether of fascist or communist or anarchistic orientation, closes the mind and stultifies the heart. In most music of this nature the message is heavy and the sentiment is trite. It may make for interesting theatre, but not much of lasting good can come of it.

The trouble is multiple -- the singer, the song and the infatuated audience -- but anyone who wishes to make truly beautiful music must come by it honestly regardless of its reception, indifferent to the fashions and fetishes of the day and free of chronic self-obsession -- at least in the moment of composition. Renouncing what has become an amalgam of narcissism and sanctimoniousness, the maker of songs must speak to what is permanent in the human heart and soul. Caveat cantor.