Why Real Artists Don’t Like Capitalism Or Identity Politics, And Other Things You’ll Never Hear On NPR

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There is an intense convolution of logic, or any kind of holistic understanding of the world around us — of politics, of industries and corporate behaviors, or human behavior — that goes on within the confines of the liberal media. I’m not talking about the QAnon media, but the media that most of the people reading this probably read or listen to at least occasionally — NPR, BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. the Guardian, etc. As far as I can tell as a reluctantly avid listener and reader, they all operate under the principle that if you’re going to talk about class or inequality in the United States, this should only be done in the context of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. This of course also applies to talking about class or inequality within the arts.

It’s not at all that the liberal media ignores white artists. But when they give us some interview with a white artist who has put out a new album, we are treated to the cozy background story the artist worked out with their record label, about how they grew up like any other normal kid, but they were just a little extra geeky and recorded music in their brother’s bedroom until they suddenly found themselves on top of the charts. Omitted is the mention of the fact that this normal suburb was in the county of Los Angeles, and the artist’s allegedly normal middle class parents were successful film directors.

In another segment we’ll hear an interview with a BIPOC playwright who has gotten a play on Broadway for the first time. There will be questions about the play itself, perhaps, but the questions will largely focus on the disadvantaged background of the playwright. What’s it like to write a play when you know the majority of your audience (like the majority of the US population) will likely be white? What’s it like to write for the White Gaze? What’s it like to work in an industry dominated by white people? Do you think you’ll ever get another play on Broadway, or is this a 2020-influenced one-off?

Occasionally there will be a story about the way the music industry shrank down to 20% of its former size since the turn of the century, in the new economy dominated by Big Tech corporations. Occasionally they’ll talk about the hedge funds buying up all the residential and commercial real estate, making it virtually impossible for independent artists or venues to survive, with the ever-growing cut being demanded by the financial institutions that are now everybody’s landlords.

But mostly we don’t hear about the collapse of these industries. It is now assumed that touring musicians go back to their day jobs when they get home, to start paying off their tour-related debts, or else they’re subsidizing their life through crowdfunded patronage or inherited wealth of some kind. It is assumed that if an independent band wants to make a record, they have to have a successful crowdfunding campaign first. Same goes increasingly for publishing a book, with a publisher, or making a documentary.

It is within these circumstances of collapsing artistic industries and the rise of Big Tech that the reporters ask their BIPOC guests how BIPOC people might be featured in the mainstream artistic industries centered in the unaffordable capitals like Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. But they’re never asked questions like, how do you find it trying to make it as an artist in the context of a collapsing industry? Only questions related to how they might find more of a place within it — like finding a corner of the basement of the building, amid the rubble, but the questions are never contextualized that way.

The white artists are never asked what it’s like to be a white artist in a majority-white country singing for mostly white audiences. It would, I suppose they suppose, be like asking someone what they think of the sun rising in the east. Another question they never ask the white artists, or any of the artists, is what is it like working within an industry that is so exclusive that most of the artists you’ve ever heard of were in one form or another born into the industry?

In the music industry you have a pretty bizarre combination of circumstances. There are various longstanding narratives being methodically pumped out. One is about artists who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. (Being born into a well-connected family of working artists is rarely one of the stories.) Another is the antiracism that supposedly permeates the music industry, and the youth in particular (always the youth, of whatever generation).

If the industry is disproportionately excluding marginalized people (which it most definitely is), the preferred liberal media narrative focuses on white artists appropriating the work of other people in various forms, and getting rich and famous off of it. This appropriation can involve a writer attempting to write from the perspective of someone from a different race, gender, etc., or an artist adopting the style or using content created by marginalized people.

When the reporters — often themselves working for outlets that are owned or funded by the same corporations responsible for producing films and TV programs and publishing music — interview artists from backgrounds the interviewers acknowledge as marginalized, the consistent focus is never about how the arts could be sustained for everyone in society in a generally egalitarian way, that does not give unfair advantage to rich, well-connected people. Rather, the focus is on how the collapsing shell of what was once called the independent music business, or off-Broadway theater, or Broadway theater, or what were once called the “major labels,” could better include marginalized people in the bomb shelter beneath the collapsing building.

Though they don’t put it that way. The answer, so goes the liberal media narrative, is not about reforming a corrupt industry, or embracing an alternative to a society based on cutthroat, landlord-driven capitalism. It is about getting white artists to give space to BIPOC artists, realize our privilege, stop hogging the spotlight, stop playing music from other people’s cultures, and stop writing from the perspective of someone who’s not just like we are.

It reminds me of the reporters who used to ask Britney Spears why she wears so little clothing. As if she, with all her agency as a twenty-something pop star, decided on her style of dress on stage. Or if she had any influence on her outfits, as if she were responsible for the pop music industry’s requirements for their stars. This is part of the media narrative of the self-made pop star with agency.

Now that I’ve set the stage a little in terms of the kind of discussions in the liberal media that I’m talking about, I’d like to take you way back in time, before we return to the present.

Going back as far as any archaeologists can surmise, in every corner of the world where there have been human populations, people have been playing music. They’ve been singing, playing flutes and other types of wind instruments, as well as stringed instruments, both fretted and bowed. As with spoken as well as written language, no one knows where the first flute, fretted instrument, or bowed instrument was made. They’re likely to have developed in different parts of the world, independently of each other.

Going back as far as any historians know, there has been some form of the bardic tradition in cultures around the world. Around the world there has been the tradition of musicians and storytellers traveling between communities and sharing the news and thoughts of the day with people, along with traders and other travelers.

It has often been noted by historians that port towns tend to produce a disproportionate number of forward-thinking radicals, because of the tendency within port communities for people to interact with a wide variety of people from other ports. I’m sure the same can be said historically of traveling artists, for the same reasons.

The music industry was a much later development, only going back a little more than a century. The industry created the up-from-the-bootstraps narratives for its artists just as it created music genres, and which types of people belonged in which genres. The corporations in charge, and the blatantly racist state in which it was functioning — the United States, in particular — dictated these practices. Rock and roll was defined by the industry as white music. Rhythm and blues was defined as Black music. If a rock band wanted to have a Black member in the band and be commercially successful, for most of the existence of the genre, both north and south, this was virtually impossible, and just generally not allowed by those who called the shots, which, contrary to popular mythology, has rarely been the artists.

But without an analysis of the massive institutional problems within a hopelessly corrupt, corporate music industry that exists in the context of a society run by a government that supports the arts about 1/100th as much as they do in Europe, regardless of which party is in power — a government that pretends to be completely helpless to do anything about the overall, general demise of the arts in this country as a means of making a living for people — we are left with some kind of identity politics trench warfare.

The problem, we are informed by the pundits, backed up by the rare artist they might find who is willing to amplify their position, is cultural appropriation, and the solution is for people to be empowered to tell their own stories, and for people from a more privileged background not to do it for them.

On the face of it, it’s a great idea, people telling their own stories, of course. It’s also just words. Without addressing the systemic problems of people who aren’t rich and well-connected having any hope of accessing the relatively few positions of stardom and influence that are available, let alone making any kind of a living from being musicians, actors, playwrights, etc., we’re left with the notion that if artists — especially more privileged ones, never clearly defined — did better at staying within their own cultural silos, there would somehow then be more room for marginalized ones to be heard.

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that, in terms of more marginalized artists being heard. There are so many obstacles in the way, that won’t be overcome with platitudes, or by white artists attempting to somehow amorphously “give space” to marginalized artists, as they all struggle to survive — but with fundamental reforms to a totally broken system.

One thing that all this extremely and intentionally vague talk of cultural appropriation will likely accomplish, other than stirring the pot of the news cycle a bit more, is to create more barriers to mutual understanding in society, and in the world. People can make all the accusations they want, and they can feel as guilty as they can feel, but neither the accusations nor the guilt will change the fundamental fact that the best, most ground-breaking art throughout human history has always been born out of people playing each other’s music, and getting into each other’s heads.

If the troubadours from anywhere in the world were ever told that in order to tell the story of a place or an event or a people, you need to be from that place or from that tribe or you need to have personally witnessed the event in question, they would have thought this a very strange notion, presumably, since the evidence available suggests that they certainly never embraced the concept, anywhere, or at least not for very long, in the broad view of history.

This is one of the many instances where the line of questioning from the liberal media on the subject of the arts completely misses the boat. No real artist would ever say you should stay in your artistic silo. Don’t believe me? Try to find one. Any artist who is serious about creativity embraces artistic traditions they may not be familiar with, as well as ones they are familiar with. This is fundamental to being a creative person, and fundamental to the history of creativity itself, on planet Earth, anyway.

Anyone who has written a song from the perspective of another person that is effective — that conveys the story and the feeling around the person in a way that transports audiences to the place, time, person in question — knows that among the greatest achievements as a writer of any kind is when you are able to transcend the confines of your own self-definition, and embrace the wider humanity that’s out there. Not only embrace the stories and perspectives of people who don’t look like you or aren’t from your country or region, but even people who are from another time period, who you have no chance of ever even meeting, let alone being.

Any artist who has fully embraced the creative process knows that transcending the confines of our self-definitions, the confines of the cultural perspective we were raised with, the confines of all the different boxes we have always been told we belong in, characterized by things like region, class, race, gender, religion, family background, and whatever else, is absolutely fundamental to making art that anyone would ever consider to be great.

The pundits don’t know this, perhaps. And the capitalists would rather convince us that the problem is our internal biases or stage-hogging tendencies. But whatever internal biases or stage-hogging tendencies any of us artists may have, the biggest problems facing working artists today of all backgrounds can be found in a broken capitalist infrastructure that won’t be repaired with the Band-Aid of identity politics.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.