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Rocking Politics

The Music World Explodes in Anger

by SHADI HAMID

Music and politics ? They just don’t mix, the critics say.

David Segal, the Washington Post pop music critic, summed up the conventional wisdom when he said that the "history of rock and politics could be summarized in an hour or two, because pop stars–or their handlers–are typically smart enough to stick to their strengths, namely selling music and piercing their extremities. Many performers are simply apolitical or indifferent, and the few who dare to approach the podium tend to tiptoe." Unfortunately for Segal, but fortunately for us, this statement is simply wrong. It may have made sense to say that three years ago. But, things have changed.

We live in a world of chaos and confusion. The threat of terrorism, however vague, remains very real. America has decided to become an imperial power. Bush, Ashcroft, and the Department of Justice have decided to attack the constitution, waging war on the liberties and freedoms that so many of us hold dear. Not to mention that we have an exploding deficit and 40 million Americans without insurance. It would be tough for artists to stay quiet in such a destructive atmosphere. And, indeed, a wide array of musicians have taken on political causes, including that most celebrated (and worthy) cause of all–unseating Dubya in 2004.

This is a time of strangeness. But it is a strangeness to be embraced. Shakira seems like a ditz but apparently she has a side job as a budding foreign policy analyst: "New leaders have to emerge, leaders who talk about love. Like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Where are they? The thinkers, the journalists, the artists of this generation are the ones who determine the thoughts of a generation, and we have to pronounce those thoughts so people wake up, so we prevent future disasters." Not bad. Shakira also came up with this little quotable gem: "The leaders are lacking love, and love is lacking leaders." Sounds like a mixture of Kennedy and a 7th grade student. Nevertheless, it sounds almost original and I’ll give her props for saying something even remotely meaningful.

Yes, it all seems somehow surreal. We live in a time where Bono gets shortlisted for Nobel Peace Prizes for fighting third world debt. Even Jay-Z, who usually prefers to sing about copulating with hot girls, is getting in on the action–but this time the political kind. "We have a voice and a responsibility to speak out," Jay-Z declares. Not exactly a rousing call-to-arms but it’s still rather impressive coming from one of most popular rappers in hip-hop history.

Dave Matthews is a good songwriter and performer but did I expect him to rail and ravage Bush in his recent Rolling Stone cover story/interview ? "I’d drink with George W. just to get him out of the White House," says Dave. Sounds like a plan, I guess. But he doesn’t stop there: "I am way more American than George Bush and Dick Cheney. They have no fucking idea what it is to be American. They are fucking idiots who are programmed to everything in the hands of the few."

In the midst of the vitriol and profanity of the Rolling Stone interview, there is actually an interesting and seldom-used line of critique against Bush. "He represents the tiniest, tiniest percentage. He got here on the shoulders of giants. I think the Christian world feels an obligation to support him, because he claims to be a Christian. I don’t see much of a Christian in him. I think there should be a long line of nuns ready to smack the crap out of him," says Matthews. Bush is often seen as an intensely religious man steeped in the virtues of "moral clarity." Matthews isn’t having any of that. Coming from a South African background, Matthews has perhaps a better sense of those founding ideals of Christianity that are so often neglected, if not altogether forgotten–love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Matthews wasn’t always this angry. The fact of the matter is that the events of the last two years have made him and so many others reassess their roles as musicians and social critics. Bruce Springsteen is another striking case in point. Although his left-leaning political outlook is rather obvious, Springsteen has always been respected by both liberals and conservatives for his emotive depictions of working-class America. Yet was this Springsteen the same one who, on October 4th, told a 50,000-strong crowd in New York to "shout a little louder if you want the president impeached" ?

One could argue that it’s all just meaningless rhetoric without any action to back it up. Musicians, though, are doing so much more than just talking. They are organizing multi-band tours, such as Tom Morello’s "Tell us the Truth Tour" which takes aim at the at corporate greed and media consolidation. Through Punkvoter.com, bands such as Green Day, Offspring, and NOFX are organizing voter-registration drives, a Rock Against Bush Tour, and starting up a political action committee. Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit, of which Jay-Z is a participating member, is aiming to register more than 4 million new voters before the elections. If successful, such an effort could prove to be decisive in a close race.

Bush, through his polarizing and disturbingly partisan approach to governance, has galvanized the Left and fueled the fire of what may become one of the strongest political currents in recent memory. In the days of Clinton, the music world was rather stale. Then along came Bush–the man who would end up bringing politics back into music, giving birth to an unintended artistic renaissance.

SHADI HAMID is a Columnist at PopMatters.Com, writing monthly on music, politics, and pop culture. He can be reached at: sh75@georgetown.edu