I thought musicians were supposed to be original

Look over there, it’s another artist railing against George W Bush and the establishment. Yawn.

According to the UK’s Independent:

Could Neil Young, a cultural lodestone for a generation of country rock fans, really be turning his attention to President George Bush and the war in Iraq? Now Young himself has confirmed it. Not only has he recorded an entire album about the conflict, but in one of the songs he spells out who he thinks is to blame for the ongoing chaos and violence and what the consequences for that person should be. That track is called “Impeach the President”.

I attended a few shows last year including K-os and Billy Talent. During these shows, the crowd was subjected to political lectures of the leftist persuasion. Each artist is entitled to his or her view, however, I always found it somewhat ironic for Canadian musicians to their message to us on the issue of George W Bush. As Canadians, we certainly can’t vote Democrat and I’m certainly not going to take political advice from the likes of K-os (the socialist “revolutionary” who is laughing all the way to the bank).

I enjoy a good show, but I often have to stand through the obligatory and ironic two minute rant about how capitalism and excess are damning our society and how that, to my surprise, war is “bad” (well, thanks… I understand now). Political activism by musicians against the establishment always seemed disingenuous to me and I have often laughed at the imaginary prospect that a punk band might one day address the crowd between songs:

“S%*t, we’ve got something to say about George f@%*ing W Bush! … Stay the course! Make the tax-cut permanent!”

We’ve seen rants against the establishment conservatives in Canada as well (yet, the Liberals were the establishment for 12 years). During previous election campaigns, we’ve seen artists such as Avril Lavigne and Sam Roberts join the campaign to “Stop Harper”. In fact, I caught Roberts’ drunken show on Parliament Hill last year as he dropped the subtext and just went for it as he lectured the crowd by song with a track called “Socialism”. Being a rebel has always had a certain romance to it, however, when the establishment is Liberal and the rant unoriginal, there lacks a certain political cogency. Moreover, Canadian musicians ranting against the American conservative establishment are rebels without a constituency and are rather rebels on the sell.

Anyways, Neil Young’s hardly shocking unoriginal pronouncement reminded me of an article that was written in 2004. Currently unavailable online and originally submitted as a blog post on FatPipeRadio.com the article is still relevant for today’s music industry, which should be desperately seeking originality. The article was written by punk-enthusiast and current Minister of Health Tony Clement, whom is much more versed in the world of punk music than me:

Like the return of flare pants or narrow ties, once every few years rock n’ roll aspires to be overtly political in a big way. All around us, musicians are demanding “fair trade” (Coldplay concerts regularly distribute brochures and advertise website destinations), urging foreign debt relief (Bono being the most prominent advocate) or illuminating the teachings of the Dalai Lama as they inform us of the current state of Tibetan-Chinese relations (Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys).

Indeed, this kind of political advocacy is not new. From Bob Dylan’s folk songs, themselves following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie’s depictions of the downtrodden, to Bob Geldof’s Live Aid efforts in the 1980s, rock n’ roll and social conscience have mixed quite well, thank you. That is the way it should be. Rock as a musical form has always been about breaking social and political conventions. Its birth was as a direct result of black and white fraternization. Established society considered it lascivious “Negro music”, which only heightened its allure for young people in the 1950s, and guaranteed its popularity among white suburbia. When Jack Black’s character lectures the school kids about standing up to “the Man” in the movie “School of Rock”, it was and is the truth.

Today, the biggest growth industry for protest is, of course, George W. Bush. Here, the entire entertainment industry has something to say. After the shock of 9/11, much of popular culture was silent. Soon, however, artists found their voices. Bruce Springsteen’s haunting “The Rising” is a fine example of post-9/11 mourning and reflection. Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, although conceived prior to the terrorist attacks, has lyrics and themes that evoke as well.

This year, however, most of the commentary has a more direct target: George W. Bush. Compilations like “Rock Against Bush” are getting shelf space. Thoughtful groups like Radiohead are getting into the act. And you know a cause is a cause when Moby wants to add his two cents’ worth. The Democrats’ Presidential nominee, John Kerry, is using rock n’ roll to maximum effect. He has held several fundraisers, raising $10 million at a time, featuring stars as varied as Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Mary J. Blige and Jon Bon Jovi. And so on and on.

Do I have a beef with this? Yes and no. No, in the sense that this is business as usual for rock, as described already in this column. It is, I believe, the business of rock to challenge beliefs and attack establishment figures. But yes, because there is something wrong with this picture. For some time I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew it had nothing to do with the political bent. If you like rock, be it pop, punk or folky, you get used to the left-of-centre bias. It comes with the territory. Here’s the issue: to me, it is the establishment position of Hollywood, and the entertainment industry in America generally, to be clearly anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush. That’s the consensus. The jury is in and the verdict is unequivocal: artists and entertainers want Bush out.

So, as an artist, as a rock n’ roller who wants to make a statement, how hard is it to agree with the anti-Bush side? It’s what practically everyone, except a few rockers like Kid Rock, are saying, singing and writing right now. Anti-Bush: how predictable. How mainstream! I almost have more time for the iconoclastic few that defy this consensus. Is Kid Rock more of a rebel than Michael Stipe, just by daring to back American troops in Iraq? Closer to home, are Billy Talent just aping an unthinking consensus when they cheered the defeat of Stephen Harper, as they did unabashedly at Toronto’s Edgefest just after the June 28 federal election?

By having such a consensus position, rock artists do themselves a disservice. I suspect that they end up preaching to the converted, rather than swaying public opinion. Polls in the United States back this up: even “Fahrenheit 9/11”, a huge commercial success, is making no ripple in the US presidential race because its polemics do not sway undecided voters, the Holy Grail of the campaign.

So what’s my suggestion? Merely this: if rock n’ roll artists want to be truly relevant on issues like Iraq, Bush and war, be more diverse in the opinions that are offered to the audience. Don’t be monochromatic. Have different views. Have a real debate. Rock out with Bush, not just against Bush! If that’s simply too much to ask, be more welcoming of other opinions, within the audience and throughout society as a whole. As Green Day is singing about these days in “American Idiot”, censorship is the key vice to avoid, even if the censorship comes from the oppression of groupthink.

In the meantime, enjoy the music–and think for yourself!

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