Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair

In dimmed lighting with vodka and coke in hand, a friend and I sat a few feet from each other staring at the beautifully curved 4k tele perched on his wall. From YouTube’s autoplay, a 2014 chart-topper classic filled the speakers with a haunting gospel harmony, while a blazing fire furnished the screen. “I think this song is great,” he said taking a swig from his Stella as I interrupted with a vicious nod. We were but a few minutes into the video when I began to notice the furrow of his brow growing heavier with each chord and at around the 2 and a half minute mark, he mumbled, “great song, but terrible video.” That’s when I knew he didn’t really like the song, he liked the tune. The message was something he couldn’t hear. But for me it was deafening.

‘Take Me to Church’ is not just a chart-topping hit for renowned Irish singer-songwriter, Hozier, but an extended metaphor shrouded in religious and political imagery. Speaking of the accompanying music video in an interview with Gigwise, Hozier described it as: “an indictment of institutions that undermine humanity.”

Now, maybe for my friend, music never really dove as deep as the message of ‘Take Me to Church’ but, for me, art had always been the quintessential platform for expressing the unity of humanity (and the lack thereof). As I developed more of my individuality, the more music spoke to me — truly spoke to me — and became less about a good melody, or a steady beat and more about the message, the themes and how these are only augmented by its melodic features.

Music taste and political beliefs share an essential trait in common: they are subjective for the individual and, therefore, they have existed in partnership for as long as humans knew how to pick up an instrument and for as long as human nature allowed us to both harmonise and dispute, and so formed a perpetually unbreakable affair— for better and for worse. This is a marriage that far surpasses their Ruby Jubilee, since records of songs written with political intent have been documented as far back as the days of Ancient Egypt.

“Music is political no matter what,” Hozier said in an interview with Q on CBC and argued that politics is viewed as having many negative connotations, “If something concerns the experience of people— it concerns some political dimension.”

I spoke with Felix and the Sunsets, a band inspired by the 60s and 70s, to what extent do they agree with Hozier’s statement, frontman Felix said:

“I strongly agree, I think that it’s near impossible to separate the two from each other. Even if you tried to make something above or outside politics (like an instrumental abstract bit of music) the stylistic choices you make are going to be influenced by your background and experiences, which are all shaped by politics.”

Take, for instance, what we describe today as ‘Rock’ — the history of this genre is alive with political influences yet most importantly, the entire foundations and journey of the genre is a political one in itself. It is a genre of historical appropriation; a great musical injustice to its founding forerunners that birthed it. Performed by white men, targeted at white men.

To understand the historical background of Rock as a genre, it’s firstly important to look at the roots of this robust, untamed tree. Rock was not always a stand alone standing stone like it is today, in fact, this rock could do a lot more— Roll. Rock and Roll was a term popular within the Blues and R&B community before it ever became a genre in the early 50s. Even before that, in the early 20th century within the Black community, as slang for both partying and an implication of sex —which as you can imagine, would not go down too well with a conservative society.

Deriving from rhythm and blues music of the 1940s— which itself was a branch of earlier blues, boogie woogie and swing music (all black founded and dominated)— Rock and Roll by the 50s had affirmed its position as a recognisable musical genre from the Music Journalists who would often review black artists’ music as ‘making you want to rock and roll’.  Particularly after Alan Freed—a radio host in 1951— began referring to songs as ‘Rock and Roll’ on the mainstream radio. By that point the sexual connotations had been dampened, thus forming a new genre.

In 2018, Hozier released a historically significant EP named ‘Nina Cried Power’ whose name is credited to Black soul singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. In this EP, he executes effectively something that white artists associated with the genre don’t often do: not only does he appreciate the roots of his own music —by mentioning Black musicians such as Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown— but also was joined by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and civil rights activist: Mavis Staples. A powerful, political move in a powerfully political song, who seeks not to appropriate but to acknowledge and not in ignorance but in homage. “It’s a thank you note to the spirit of protest,” Hozier told Billboard regarding ‘Nina Cried Power’. A thank you note that not only extended to the Black musicians who “cried power”, but also to the white musicians who used their art and platform to cry power for the powerless. “Solidarity costs nothing,” he affirms in the same interview.

Amongst the most politically fascinating and influential of the white artists mentioned in the song was folk and beatnik icon — Bob Dylan, whose entire discography not only progresses, but transcends into what author Mike Marqusee describes as a deeper kind of political radicalism: individualism.

Bob Dylan began as an awkward and skinny, big-haired and frail-looking boy that sat strumming his guitar in a Greenwich Village Coffeehouse in 1961. His instrument competing with the chatter and bustle of East Coast voices, while he continued telling stories on his guitar and seldom caring who believed them, just like the blues greats he admired before him. He was merely another straw in the haystack amidst an ongoing folk revival and just another folk singer in a growing political region, suffocated by beatnik and bohemian culture.

That was, until, a charming, soft acoustic song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ —whose tune was from an anti-slavery song ‘No More Auction Block’ that dated back to the United States Civil War— turned a then 22 year old Dylan into a household name.

Unlike other protest songs of the time from artists such as Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was not a musical representation of any particular incident but rather a series of open-ended questions posed to the listener, to gage the direction of their own political compass. “How many years can people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Dylan—though constantly reinventing himself—never failed to provoke intense speculation, especially in a society that is always searching for the deeper meanings.

One thing about Dylan that is for certain is that his musical relationship with politics was never that elementary— it was clarity ensuing vagueness and linear before it was abstract yet despite it all, his relationship with politics never really ceased to exist regardless of the claims of the masses. It just changed because Dylan changed.

Dylan’s greatest protest songs were written in a short span of 20 months from 1962 to 1964 and nothing quite voiced the youth of the 60s than his generational anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.  A song that affirmed its position as a warning to senators and congressmen that in order to survive the maverick times of 1960s America, then they must succumb to its progressions or die trying to fight it. 

Most (if not all) of Dylan’s protest songs around this time were shrouded in political influences from days gone by such as the beat anarchists of the 50s as well as the radical wobblies, with traditional folk themes such as poverty, racism, social injustices and war. As a folk singer, your guitar and your pen are your comrades in the ongoing social political war, but Dylan was more than that as he breathed a new life into the air of protest — he spoke to people and people listened.

‘The Times They Are-A Changin’’ voiced a generation. The youth of America was rising, taking back a future that they believed rightfully belonged to them and not a future that belonged to violence, uncertainty and war, as well as the continuous fight for civil rights in which Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill for soon after.

In an interview with Dylan for 20/20 in 1985, journalist Bob Brown said: “I think a lot of people were inspired to get involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement as a result of having listened to you and your songs,” to which a stern-faced, mysterious looking Dylan replied: “It’s hard to say what causes anything to happen—I don’t know if a song can really do that. It might. I don’t know”.

It was not that Dylan never understood the power of his affiliation with politics, it was more the need to focus inwards on the self rather than outwards for the people, that his musical heart so desired and in mid 1964, he confirmed this as he told critic Nat Hentoff: “I don’t want to write for people anymore—you know, be a spokesman”. It was at this point that he began writing songs that involved personal relationships like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and truly, was looking inward, believing that people on the outside, should define their own terms by doing the same.

However, his music never really had a break from politics like most critics would suggest and no matter how hard Dylan tried to escape the “isms”, he may have succeeded with all but one: Individualism.

His transgression from acoustic to electric was a whole, blatant (possibly unintentional) political statement in itself, separating those who favoured tradition from those who advocated for change. However; if Hozier’s ‘music is political no matter what’ affirmation can be taken to be true, then even when Bob Dylan was undergoing a personal reflection, his relationship with politics persisted. Why? Because, though writing about individual experience, it was relatable for people who themselves are individuals, rather than a group of people with certain beliefs. It concerned human experience and still, perhaps incidentally, spoke to people and still—people listened.

In 1965, Dylan, though never officially admitting it, made what critics describe as his “return” to politics after the release of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, referring to the violence inflicted on civil rights protestors by police but it should be argued though returning to protest songs, he never abandoned politics. It’s important to note that one can exist without the presence of the other. Politics can exist without protest songs, but protest songs cannot exist without politics. 

There is also something to be said about Dylan’s music constantly staying relevant despite many older songs falling victim to time, which the same can be said for music and politics as a whole. Not only do they never part, but they stay relevant, surviving the chaos of the modern world as timeless entities and we would not be listening to the music of days gone by if we didn’t see the reflection of old messages on our contemporary society. Times are forever changin’ and so is the relationship between music and politics— but never dying.

A quintessential example of how politics and music’s relationship is constantly evolving with the times comes from three-piece band Felix and the Sunsets as they talk about their EP ‘This Will Change’, whose lead single of the same name was heavily inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in Glasgow, 2020. Frontman Felix describes politics as being a very important part of their work: “It’s really informed a lot of what I want to talk about in our songs. But I try to combine it with a lot of other influences to tell new stories.”

Felix then goes on to describe his political objective for writing the samba rhythm, Santana-esque track which has close to 2,000 plays on Spotify:

“My intention for ‘This Will Change’ was that the song would encourage people protesting and making their voices heard. Songs can be galvanising and I’ve always been drawn to that in music. The first verse describes the injustice of another extra-judicial killing of another black man by American police, and that the current lack of repercussions will change. The second verse describes the protests and the people who will force the change.”

After asking whether Felix finds it important for musicians to be inspired by or to include politics in their work and why, he responded:

“Personally yes, I am much more interested in artists who engage with real social issues. I don’t really respect artists who shy away from important issues, as they could be using their voice and art to encourage positive improvements in people’s lives and society. I don’t think every song should have to be political but I just think it’s a let down for rich artists to not amplify good causes.”
Too much of anything can make you sick and the same goes for music and politics. Though inextricably interlinked, there’s a lot to be said for subtleties and allowing room for listener interpretation. Felix spoke of hoping to keep on writing songs that have a political message but relayed an essential point:

“I hope to keep blending it with stories and doing it in a hopefully surprising and inventive way. If a song just smacks you in the face as all politics or slogans without something extra then I think the artist has probably failed. It’s important to me as I think everyone who is aware of suffering and injustice should try to tip the scales towards improvement with their words and actions.”

That being said, Felix still believes that it is his duty as a musician and all other artists-alike to use their platform and art to spread political awareness:

“I think that good art will always amplify values of the artists. When a group try to be unpolitical then they are by extension choosing to side with a status quo which is letting people down massively.”

The tumultuous, diverse and constantly changing but never parting relationship of music and politics, sometimes sticking out like a sore thumb or masked under your ears like a chameleon — love it or loathe it, its not going anywhere according to Felix: “As long as there are differences in people and cultures, there will be music that reflects the differences.”

So, maybe when I discovered my own sense of individualism, the messages of music did speak to me on a deeper level and perhaps Hozier was a spokesperson for my own political beliefs residing inside. However; one thing is certain amidst all the uncertainty, there is always at least three active contributors in the relationship between music and politics and the third is you, the listener and consumer. There is no doubt that without the listener, the relationship would survive but it would do just and only that. Without me and you, it would seize to thrive.

Inevitably, you can choose to be on one of two sides of the music and politics coin: to listen and acknowledge with vodka and coke in hand or swig back the Stella and enjoy the tune, whichever you choose, it’s evident that the relationship will always prevail. 

Published by

Ailsa Gillies

23 Years Old. MSc International Journalism. BA (Hons) Film, Media and Journalism. Freelance Journalist and Content Creator for BBC Scotland's 'The Social'. Former Columnist and Music Feature Writer for The Weekender.

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