The famed beat writer William S. Burroughs once said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Whilst ostensibly, when it is emboldened in fine prose like that, the notion of a gingham-clad musician yielding four chords and poetic disdain as a weapon against the powerful, seems like a befitting musical equivalent to The Man of Tiananmen Square.
However, when the rose-tinted specs of profundity are removed, the reality is that the might of politics would have no problem rolling the tanks right through the peace and love pasture brandished against them, leaving some sort of cambric Jackson Pollock smeared upon the Square and a naïve group of glossy-eyed devotees looking on in despair, ditching their paisley bandanas and heading for the relative safety of the bushes and laterally, polling stations.
Admittedly, my initial response to the headline was a resounding “yes!”. On the surface, artists are obviously vehicles of change and progress. If you can imagine a world without the Promethean cultural deities of the sixties, like Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and The Beatles, then you may as well contact the powers-that-be and have them hand a Pulitzer prize directly to your imagination. However, after delving into the endless annals of musical mobility it would seem ‘change and progress’ are rather nebulous terms when it comes to the nuanced world of politics.
The late sixties and early seventies saw an unceasing barrage of protest music benevolently brandished against the world of American politics. A lot of this, of course, was focused on the Vietnam War. The musical response to the conflict was magnificent, and I by no means intend that in a glib way that detracts from the historical catastrophe that the war represented. The whole music world, not just the Americans and Australians who were directly involved, seemed to be galvanized in a unified call for peace and resolution. The public response was one of lionised adulation. Heroes were born in the ethereal zeitgeist of flower power and their Godly status has never been matched in the aeons of pop culture thereafter. And yet despite this gargantuan wave of seismic sonic goodwill, the bastard governments somehow withstood. And the war went on and on and…
In fact, they withstood to such an extent that for the most part, they had the backing of the American public, which is a pertinent point when looking at how music affects politics. Many seemingly huge protest songs are embellished with the notion of a politic bludgeon in retrospect, but at the time they often failed to dent the chart, thus their success in a political sense was merely preaching to the choir and in the democratic world of politics that has very little effect. For every one liberal Bob Dylan fan passionately mobilised by his political verse, there’ll be tenfold more who can’t stand the howl of his harmonica, so he ain’t getting their vote, so to speak.
‘Masters of War’ may well seem like an indictment that a warmonger couldn’t recover from, but you won’t find a copy of it in The White House. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ might have shifted units while offering up peaceful introspection, but it has never appeared in a legislative bill. Aretha Franklin’s entreaties for equality were glowing beacons of egalitarianism, and yet people are still taking the knee.
The issue is that politics is an inherently complex affair. These songs might be necessary, and, in many cases, they might be essential and brilliant, but they’re over in a matter of minutes having made a point with a catchy chorus. They may well galvanise a movement, but enacting political change takes more than artistry, it takes people willing to iron out the tedious details in place to allow politicians to hide behind the defensive shield of ‘naivety’ and ‘logistics’.
Although the idea that the merciless world of politics marches on despite arts best efforts might seem despondent, it actually unearths a rather more poignant and hopeful truth. It might seem like popular music hasn’t influenced the world of politics in a legislative sense, but it has most certainly dominated the discourse of recent history.
If you think of the sixties, then one of the first words brought to mind will be swinging. Followed by the great musical dirge of the early seventies and the Afro boom that slinked the decade into the opulent synth excess of the glossy-eyed eighties and so on. In short, music might not influence politics directly but as a pure subversive force, it is unrivalled.
In many ways, music even illuminates the narrowmindedness of political discussion. Although protest songs might have too much of a one-track mind to avoid the nettlesome net of paperwork, the boon of music, in general, eviscerates it. Music takes all comers and propagates progress in a much more spiritual sense than politics. In the Soviet Union, pop records made their way into the country, and for decades later, youth were mobilised to form a cultural revolution. Granted it might not have directly influenced the wider politics of the Soviet regime, but in a day-to-day sense it offered up an inviolable sanctity where youth could bask in the sanguine hue of subversive music, and forage out an understanding that their lives were not governed by the regime that surrounded them.
In this regard, music might not be able to change a bill or pass a law, but it has the subversive force to usurp politics entirely and push progress and change through under the noses of the bourgeoise. It would seem, however, that music often elucidates this point even more clearly when it captures conflictions and ambiguities of existence by crafting a liminal and nebulous space, one that seems even more apt in encapsulating the grey of personal politics away from the black and white of the morally obvious or bipartisan extremism of online point of views that decidedly exacting protest music often misses.
Music might not meddle with the finer details, but it has the power to influence ballots by guiding the way for youth, and it is a benevolent unifying force that since its origins on plantations has spoken of solidarity and defiance that power cannot ignore.