Monday, August 17, 2009

"Shut Up and Scream"

When the CBC interviews a passing Hamilton steelworker on the sidewalk on their opinions of same-sex marriage, do viewers say "Shut up and go to the plant"? When CNN visits a Carolina housewife to ask her what her views on Roe v. Wade are, do viewers tell her to "Shut up and tend the house"? Generally not -- because the steelworker and the housewife are citizens of the democratic nations in which they live, just like everyone else; they account for part of the populous. In a system of democracy, politicians do not have a monopoly on the right to speak on political issues (though they've tried to drill that into citizens' heads for generations). Rather, their purpose is to voice what the constituents they represent feel is important to them.

So why is it that when a musician takes a political stance that so many onlookers so quickly say "Shut up and sing" as though somehow an artist is less of a citizen than the plumber or the doctor? Seemingly the days of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the great artists and philosophers (who were also commercially-viable entities) have long been erased, or romanticized, in Western consciousness as relics of an age passed when art was far from commodity, and artists themselves were often the first to comment and observe cultural and political dynamics; their cultural criticism was held in high regard for its unconventional wisdom and insight.

Admittedly I'm the first to cringe when anyone speaks publicly on sensitive political issues, musician or otherwise, because of the stakes involved in advancing the position amidst generalized public perception. However, I can't help but wonder what it is about musicians specifically that warrants "Shut up" calls from onlookers with so much more frequency. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Stipe are both in the business of entertainment, so why should one's political stance be elevated over the other's due to their so-called "legitimate" claim to speak on political issues. One wears a tie, the other has a mic stand -- they're both still citizens.

Historically speaking, art (and music in particular) has been intricately connected to political resistance and counter-revolution, from the days of slaves passing esoteric messages of liberty through song, to Bob Dylan delivering messages of change through folk songs, to Public Enemy warning us to "Fight the powers that be." Artistic revolution is almost inherently politically subversive; it becomes a catalyst, or a subsidiary of cultural change which does not bode well for those invested in, or standing to benefit from, the maintenance of the status quo. Fittingly, any artist, like any other citizen, would be demonized for challenging the dominant political position -- it is merely the relationship between art and powerful cultural revolution that inspires a more heightened opposition to their voice.

I highlight that an artist who challenges convention, for the right-leaning Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Ronald Reagans of the world are rarely instructed to "Shut up and act." Yet, the left is constantly at war with its public image and the legitimacy of its position when art and artists go political.*

Few words have ever rung more true than Joe Strummer's adage: "You have the right to free speech, unless you're dumb enough to actually try it!"

Bigger cages, longer chains?

Should artists "Shut up and sing," or "Stop whispering, start shouting" -- as any citizen in a democratic system is entitled to, whether we agree with their position or not?

Be well,

* An obvious exception to this would be Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, who is now Australia's Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts -- but Australia has proven again and again to be the progressive black sheep of so-called "Westernized" nations.