This opinion article was first published on CLUAS in October 2004

CLUAS Opinion

The Muscian's Role

Vote for Change - music and politicsIn the 2nd CLUAS Opinion piece, Californian John Ford - a committed John Kerry supporter - provides a timely exploration of the importance of rock music and its role in politics, with a particular focus on the role music is playing in the 2004 American Presidential election.


I write from California. I spent my 20s in Los Angeles during the Reagan Era, and it was hell. That administration was supporting death and torture squads in El Salvador and Nicaragua, The environment was under attack. Far Right nuts were being nominated to the Federal & Supreme Courts. The national debt was being doubled and tripled (sounds like deja-vu all over again, huh?). I remember feeling that it was the first time in our history that the following generation would not have it better than their parents.

It felt like all music was political then. The local LA punk & club scene was wild. Lots of inherently political shows by bands like X and the Dead Kennedys (police helicopters, tear gas, night sticks - those were the days!). The Clash, for five nights at the Hollywood Paladium, railed against Reaganism / Thatcherism in the heart of comfortable California. Springsteen's music & shows progressed from personal dramas to dark tales of the decline of America, and he began to include booths for Vietnam Vet organizations and food banks at his shows. There were the big benefit tours: No Nukes shows, the Amnesty International tour, anti-apartheid shows, anti-foreign policy (in Central America) shows, a massive cross-cultural show at the LA Coliseum celebrating the release of Mandela (he was the closer).

These were great, inspiring times - but President Reagan was re-elected, and was followed by Bush senior. The horrors of their policies went on.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of the upcoming US election, both for us here in America and for the rest of the world. This election matters because the current U.S. administration is so damned incompetent. They can't get things done (except for rewarding billionaires and killing poor people). An America that works with the rest of the world instead of against it will impact everyone. Throwing out this incompetent crowd of reactionary zealots and voting in Mr. Kerry's team will lead to less dead bodies at the hands of the U.S. We can start to rebuild some credibility in the world regarding human rights, the value of democracy, decreasing worldwide pollution, decreasing oil consumption and our reliance on tyrannical regimes to supply our oil fix, etc. The world, not just the U.S., will be a better place with President Bush out and President Kerry in.

For me, this election is all about my kids' future. They are going to be saddled with enormous national debt, which equates as less opportunity in life. Much more importantly, if President Bush is re-elected, they will inherit a country with a weakened constitution (which is everything in America), with maybe four more neo-Nazi Supreme Court judges, with more racial injustice, with more guns everywhere, with more 'hooray for me, to hell with you'. They will travel the world with a target on their back, as the enemy of the little guy. They will inherit the guilt of America as oppressor. It's not only appropriate for artists to be in an uproar over this election, it's imperative - and it's almost their duty.

My take is that folks aren't so much upset at artists trying to influence the political world; they're upset at rich, spoiled artists trying to tell us real folks what to think. Also, this time around there are artists pushing for a partisan candidate, instead of just protesting, in righteous indignation, against some injustice. It's so much easier to be comfortably "anti-" than to take a positive stand.

People didn't object so much when relatively poor artists like Odetta, Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie took strident political stands about civil rights, World War 2, or The Depression. Guthrie wrote several partisan songs specifically promoting F.D.R. and the New Deal.

It's a bit different when spoiled multi-millionaires preach to us about what's best for the little guy, as they sip their brandy on the yacht. That's why there is a very short list of pop artists that have the proven integrity to pull it off. The artists on the Vote For Change tour have said that they are uncomfortable openly advocating for Senator Kerry, and don't do so lightly. The stakes have become so high, and the potential catastrophe of another four years of neo-conservatism so worrisome, that the partisan plea has become necessary. You don't get to vote against the status quo; in our system you can only vote for the opposition. A non-vote ("I'm not political") equals a vote for the bad guys.

One of my favourite artists-taking-a-political-stand stories is when John Lennon upset the Left and the Right when he sang, in Revolution, about his rejection of violence and of easy answers in our spirited quest to transform society, this at the height of the counterculture movement, both hippy-peaceful and Weather Underground-violent. That's the artist challenging his audience's assumptions and beliefs - using his platform to stimulate thought and maybe effect change. He's done his job; the audience can do what they want with it.

I strongly disagree with the idea that pop artists should just entertain us and not try to persuade us or 'enlighten' us. That was once the case, but The Beatles and Bob Dylan changed all that. As did Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, when they smacked us with 'What's Going On', 'Talking Book', 'Innervisions', etc. Pop music hasn't been the same since. What would our culture be without The Clash making us squirm with 'Clampdown', or The Pistols floating on a barge down the Thames during the Queen's jubilee, howling 'God Save The Queen'? Or Springsteen challenging us to look into ourselves for hatred, on The Rising tour? Or U2 pleading for peace, love and understanding in Ulster and elsewhere? They're doing their job as Bob Dylan defines it in 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall':

'And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin''

The key to all of this is the punk revelation that these artists aren't gods; they are just intelligent people whose opinions we've learned to trust. Consider what they are saying, do your homework, and use your own brain to decide. No one is asking any listener to 'vote as I say', but to get involved and become aware and make an informed choice.

John Ford

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