Musicians and politics: should they stay separate?

Dominic Lee discusses...

Dominic Lee
5th November 2018
Credit: wikimedia commons


On Tuesday July 17th, 2018, I witnessed something I had never seen at a concert. The gig in question was Pearl Jam’s rescheduled second show in London. The previous weekend had seen the much-anticipated UK visit of Donald Trump and the band called Trump out in a big way, commenting on a banner in the street- “God save the Queen from the fascist tangerine”- and a gigantic “Baby Trump” balloon outside the arena.

This was the first time I had ever seen a band make a political statement with my own eyes; despite the fact that artists commenting on politics has undoubtedly become more popular since Trump took office in January 2017. But should musicians be sharing their political views?

I’m going to try to be as unbiased as possible and present a couple of arguments. First of all we have musicians who want to make a public statement in the media. Personally, this is not my preferred way of making a statement, but it is the one that many artists have come to adopt. Returning to Pearl Jam, the Seattle band produced a highly controversial poster for their Washington DC gig this year which depicted a dead Donald Trump lying in front of a burning White House. I’m going to contradict myself here and say that I actually quite liked this stab at the establishment. The use of a poster was far subtler than a direct quote in an interview and arguably produced more of a reaction, with the Republicans criticising the poster.

Nonetheless, some artists are far more brash in their views. A good example of this is Morrissey, the former Smiths frontman said that the “sorrow of the IRA bombing in Brighton was that Thatcher escaped unscathed” and while I love the Smiths as much as anyone else, this is not a good look. Similarly, John Legend took his distaste for Trump to social media, replying to a tweet from Trump Jr and calling out Kanye West for his support of the President. West met with Trump recently and has himself hinted at a run for the oval office.

On the other hand, musicians who want to make political statements through their music have my utmost respect. While I’m not going to claim to be well versed in the field of politics, anyone who can make a statement through their art deserves at least some credit. Now I’m not suggesting that every politically charged song is going to be a masterpiece. Nonetheless, the “protest song” genre has produced some relatable classics. Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ was originally written as a response to George W Bush and the war in Iraq and has since seen a resurgence in popularity as the US is once again divided.

Similarly, Rage Against The Machine’s biggest hit, ‘Killing In The Name’, was actually a protest towards a police brutality case in LA, 1991. U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, a protest against the British Army was released 11 years after the event with Bono claiming that the song was “not a rebel song” but more of a “humanitarian plea”.

While I’ve tried my best to remain unbiased so far, I prefer artists to share their political views through their music, which is much more powerful than quotes in the media. Interview style quotes have the potential to be far too crass, meanwhile “protest songs” are remembered forever. Though it has to be said that some artists are less keen on politics, with Liam Gallagher much preferring that musicians stick to music and remain “as they were”- pun intended.


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