It’s a tale that repeats with each new generation: the artist angers the masses by marrying artistic vision with principles. In this millennium, we’ve already witnessed notable examples from popular musicians: The Chicks denouncing George Bush and the Iraq War. Lady Gaga protesting Russia’s ban on homosexuality at a tour stop in Moscow. Beyoncé evoking the Black Panthers in a Super Bowl halftime show. Kanye West endorsing Donald Trump.
The common argument against political expression through music feigns anger at expression, since not all fans welcome it — equating the role of a musician to a 9 to 5: resist self-expression, resist individuality. This point is selfish, simplistic, and naive. Art is by nature political, and an expression of emotion, intelligence, and willpower. To argue that musicians shouldn’t express political views is to argue against Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” or The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Music doesn’t exist without viewpoints. Every song expresses at least one perspective, and the most creatively charged music is steeped in political nuance. This country is big. It spans thousands of miles and holds countless cultural identities. Music’s celebratory nature welcomes all perspectives and fights the very idea of censorship.
No criticism of political musicians would be honest without considering politicians who use music to shape their image. With the recent populist wave, the popularity of political rallies is exploding. Music, often without the approval of the artist, is deployed to hype up the audience. Licensing rules allow this behavior to persist, leaving musicians helpless against the whim of the political tide. I would strongly argue that this is more sinister than open political expression through music — politics is not an art.
Most musicians understand that their songs no longer belong to them once released. In the public realm, art is wide open to interpretation. Us writers on this very site vent our opinions on art because that art causes us to feel something, and whether positive or negative, we like the discussion.
Musicians will always express their views through music, because their views shape their identities. There’s a difference between an artist who is an enigma, hiding their lives from public view, and one who is valueless, void of depth. Without “F*ck Tha Police” or Hendrix’s shredded national anthem rendition, we would lose precious critiques of people in power. These critiques inspire activism and build momentum. In this way, music may be holding democracy together more than anything else.