Monday, November 26, 2012
No More Political Music
I would like to take this opportunity to say that I will no longer be making any more political music.
I am not going so far as to say that my previous political music has been repudiated, and I will probably continue to play some of those songs at future shows. But I no longer think that I should be writing new political music.
As I previously stated, ever since I "released" the very confused album called Nine Questions I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the album's treatment of politics, specifically, the mixture of the spiritual and the political. Is it really appropriate for spiritual tunes such as "Shifts" and "The Clockmaker" to appear alongside highly charged political tracks such as "Liberty" or "Comments on the Political Situation"? Because I am someone who is very troubled by the mixture of faith and politics in this country, I guess I get pretty mad at myself when I find myself doing the same thing.
So why no more political music? It is because music is a vehicle for emotion, and politics should not be about emotion. As a lawyer, I believe victories should be won on argument, not emotion. If you take a position, be prepared to argue it, otherwise, you have no right to hold it. It is not enough for something to feel right. It is better to be able to say why something is right when all the noise and all the emotion is stripped away.
There is, of course, an analytical element to music, and some, such as Arnold Schoenberg, have tried to remove emotion from music altogether (at least this is how I perceive serial music, but please tell me I am wrong). But to say that music is anything other than pure emotion in sonic form is to miss its beauty. Because of music's power, transmitting a political message along with it could perhaps be seen as nothing less than problematic, even if that message may happen to be the right one. The arguments should be able to stand on their own, not be propped up by a crutch, however beautiful that crutch may be.
Political music does have its merits without question. Many would point to Bob Dylan as an example of political music done the right way. I agree. But Bob Dylan is great because he was right back then. What if an equally skilled and clever songwriter had come along and communicated a pro-segregation, pro-war agenda? I certainly doubt such a person would have escaped history's dustbin in the long run, but the power of music may have allowed such a person to do significant damage in the short term. If music can give weight to a positive idea, what is stopping it from giving weight to a negative idea?
And do not forget about Richard Wagner. For the past 150 years we have been trying unsuccessfully how to reconcile the beautiful music he created with the toxic political messages he placed beneath the surface. It would be unfair to say that music alone was responsible for the rise of Hitler, but evil will easily disguise itself as beauty whenever it can. As I wrote earlier, I do believe we as listeners have the right to take the music we enjoy and weed out the political messages we do not like, but that does not mean the process is anything close to easy.
Certainly on some political questions we have decided as a nation that there are clear right answers, and no music, however skillfully constructed will change that. But what about the countless other issues where the "correct" answer is far from clear? Many issues in today's dialogue fall in this category. Is music equipped to weigh in on the nuances, or does it run the risk of over-simplification? All in all, I have come to distrust political music not because I doubt music's effectiveness to at conveying a message. Quite the contrary, I find music too powerful to be trusted.
And in many ways I do not trust myself. If I thought I was right about everything, perhaps I would still be interested in writing political music. But part of growing up is realizing your own limitations and seeing all sides of an issue. On some issues I know I am right, but on many more I am worried I may be wrong. Before you can have true conviction, you must know what it is you do not know, and then you must learn where to go from there. As for me, I fall under the former, but not the latter. Nine Questions is artistically inadequate because, despite its title, it was more interested in answering questions than asking them, and these supposed answers came out before they were ready. Don't get me wrong, I plan to live a life of argument, and I plan to win. But for right now, my arguments will not appear in my music.