(Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.)
Earlier this month Nashville troubadour Bobby Bare Jr. lit out for the territories on tour in support of his first full-length record in four years, A Storm A Tree My Mother’s Head (which is out today). On this this week’s installment of Diversions the singer/songwriter/bandleader waxes on why artists standing on political soapboxes really isn’t all that different than your dentist, only without a mouth full of novacaine. Enjoy. Bare Jr. and co. are gigging tonight, here in Los Angeles, at the Echo.
So let’s say you have a really sore tooth and you’re at the dentist’s office. You’re in the chair, your mouth is wedged open wide, and you notice a large picture of a president for which you did not vote hanging over the shoulder of the dental assistant. She lays the gas on you and then the dentist walks in. He begins picking at your stinky teeth while speaking passionately about politics you don’t really agree with, and some that you don’t really have an opinion about. Mostly, YOU’RE JUST THERE TO HAVE YOUR FUCKING TEETH FIXED and can’t say a thing. This is how many fans of music feel when they go to a show.
They may have heard one of your songs on the radio or on the web and liked it, or they knew some cute girls who might be goin’ to the show that night, and they paid their money for some “musical entertainment”. Then they are drug through the political opinions of someone who may or may not have a very well informed opinion. The artist on stage has just potentially lost half a crowd (who may not agree with his/her opinions). The rest of the crowd that is indifferent or may actually agree with the songwriter is possibly pissed because they came there to ENJOY MUSIC and hear a familiar melody, or maybe sing along. They did not come to listen to a lonely one sided “Crossfire“.
Just because you have the talent to write a song does not mean that you also have an equally special gift for politics or an especially qualified political opinion. THEY JUST DON’T ALWAYS GO TOGETHER. Many talented musician friends of mine are the last mutherfuckers in the room who should be talking about politics, as they mostly only think about girls, free beer, perfectly tattered vintage jeans and music. That is fine, as that is what has worked for many musicians before them.
Johnny Cash sang in “The One On The Left Is On The Right” the line, “and if you have political opinions keep them to yourself,” but also wrote “The Man In Black.“ It’s a strange, yet common, dilemma. There are many songwriters of whom their audience knows, before they pay for their tickets, they are going to get a one sided political ear load. But it’s an obstacle for a fan to like the singer’s songs if they don’t agree with the songwriter politically. I once heard a rumor that members of one of my favorite bands were all members of the opposing political team. I allowed it to taint the way I felt about music that I already liked and wished I never heard that rumor. Who is the artist benefiting other than himself or herself to impose that choice on the listener. If Steve Earle was a truck driver instead of a musician, he would surely be on his CB blasting to anyone who had the desire to listen to his opinions, while truckin’ down the highway on his way to the next death row execution/protest- it is unapologetically just who he is. I understand this about some of these hyper-political songwriters. I admire their passion and know that they just can’t help themselves. For these, some of them great songwriters, music is mostly just used as a tool to sneak their opinions into your ear. I am a fan of many of these people and I don’t feel it is wrong of me to prefer to hear them sing me a song rather than listen to the sound of them trying to sway me or my political ideals – many of which are parallel to whomever is on stage, but why preach to the converted?
The musicians I respect the most are the ones who put their opinions into action more often than into a microphone. Neil Young, who has made a career off melody and verse mixed with politics, recently said this:
“I think that the time when music could change the world is past…I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age. I think the world today is a different place, and that it’s time for science and physics and spirituality to make a difference in this world and to try to save the planet.” Charlie Rose interview
And he has backed it up with most of his efforts these days going into his “LINKVOLT” instead of touring. He even wrote a song called “Just Singing A Song Won’t Change The World.”
If Conor Oberst is going to give us his opinion about playing Tucson or not playing Tucson just before he nails the audience with a great song that everyone loves, like “The First Day of My Life,” then that is only going to encourage the guys and girls who just walked off the American Idol stage to voice their opinions. Personally, I really don’t want to know what Clay Aiken thinks about the surge in Kandahar even if he has a good point. It could be even worse – ACTORS who somehow feel that they are “special” and deserve to talk politics cause someone is dumb enough to put them on CNN.
Why does anyone assume that just because someone can strum a guitar and hang a harmonica from his sweaty neck (both of which I do), that he have some sort of special insight into what’s right for anyone other than himself. There are so many opportunities for a famous person to flex their clout and help direct their country in the direction they feel is right, without bringing it to the stage. I have written political songs myself, and enjoy playing them for different audiences in the USA and Europe, but I always feel self-indulgent for imposing my view on every person standing in the audience via my music. When you throw your political opinion out there, there is an assumption that you as a citizen are somehow “special” and have some kind of insight that is above the audience. I just don’t feel comfortable making that assumption. Why does having a mic in my face make my opinion more important or valid than anybody else’s opinion in the room? The courage it takes to get on stage and sing a song is usually the result of a desperate need for attention (myself included), and I don’t really think that makes someone special or especially insightful.
I know there really is power in music, and there is a reason rock music is banned by governments in many oppressive countries. Sometimes it is because the rock music in a country is so bad, but mostly because the country is trying to keep a hold on what moves and binds its young people. However, there is still something sneaky and icky about sliding the political stuff in along with the melodies and words people paid to hear. This underhanded musician is a lot like the dentist who starts laying it on you after he knows you’re deep in his chair, your mouth is wedged wide open, unable to speak, the gas is starting to take effect, and the opinions are beginning to leak. words/ Bobby Bare Jr.
MP3: Bobby Bare Jr. :: Sad Smile