Saturday, August 18, 2012

Comments on the Paul Ryan/Tom Morello Situation

Over the past few days there has been a little explosion in the media relating to the musical tastes of Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for Vice-President.  Ryan claimed that one of his favorite groups is the left-leaning activist rock band Rage Against the Machine, but he went on to say that he only likes the music and not the words.  This provoked an angry response by guitarist Tom Morello, in the form of an op-ed in Rolling Stone Magazine.  This excerpt I found particularly interesting:

Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.
I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of "Fuck the Police"? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!

Not that it has a great deal of relevance for the purposes of this discussion, but I support Obama in this election, and would probably find myself closer to Morello than to Ryan on the political spectrum.  Even so, I find Morello's response problematic.

Morello says Ryan can like whatever bands he wants, but then is quick to offer his own view about the correct way to interpret the music of Rage Against the Machine.  As a musician myself, I am sympathetic to Morello's stance.  To ignore the words in Rage Against the Machine's music is to ignore a huge component of the total product, and no artist wants to see that happen, whatever that particular component might be.  But when you break it down, Morello does not have a strong leg to stand on.  Who is to say what a particular piece of music means?  To the dismay of many artists, when something is submitted to the public for consumption, the artist loses the monopoly that he or she had on how that piece is to be interpretted.  And realistically, how can it be any other way?  Music is worthless if the listener does not have the right to assign his or her own meaning to what is being heard.  What good would a Monet painting be if everyone who looked at it focused on the same elements and we were all moved in exactly the same way?  When I listen to music it takes me to other places, places which are unique to my mind own mind and off limits to all others.

So then if Paul Ryan wants to listen to Rage Against the Machine only for the music and not for the words attached to it, no one has the right to tell him he should not do that, not even the music's creator.  Most musicians, including Morello I presume, want to be outlived by their music, to see it stand for all time.  We may think we can attach a little sticker saying "This piece means _____," and many musicians over the centuries have done this very thing. But the more time passes, the more the particular circumstances surrounding the composition become obscured.  That is not to say we shouldn't try to investigate the intent of the composer, but to take it as infallible would be an error.

A well-crafted song dealing with lost love, for example, can have a wide appeal because many people will be able to relate to that situation in some way, and few would find the topic controversial.  Political music, on the other hand, is purposely designed to be contrarian and to incite strong feelings about specific issues.  If music is universal, then political music is by far the most un-universal variation.  I'm sure some have felt that politics and music will always be an uncomfortable pairing for this reason.  Attempts to detach music from its political intent are nothing new.  Wagner's opera are still enjoyed by many today, even though they were laced with distasteful political messages.  The only other alternative would be to reject Wagner entirely, and from an artistic standpoint that is unacceptable.  So then it stands that the act of picking out what we like and rejecting what we do not like is a listener's right.  Paul Ryan can sort out the difference on his own.

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