Two elements of life and culture that seem to have recurring roles in my life are politics and music. These two worlds could not be more different from each other: one is more drab and gray, focusing on following the rules, a lack of creativity and procedure. The other, is more vibrant, filled with all the colors of the world, with vibrancy and a complete showcase of creativity and form.
Music is the ultimate way of creating order from chaos. However, despite the two worlds of music and politics being so similar, they have one thing in common: they both require a firm finger on the pulse of the people to have an effect. As demonstrated numerous times throughout the course of history, the tool of music can be used effectively to tackle major political issues, and there have been artists who have used it to it’s full potential. For example, look at Marvin Gaye using his album “What’s Going On?” to help combat Vietnam War efforts and encourage peace, and Eminem’s recent cypher bashing President Donald Trump at the 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards.
However, for any one of those examples, you also have Sinéad O’Connor ripping a picture of then-Pope John Paul II singing a modified rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live. In another example of the politcal nature of “Saturday Night Live,” how about Rage Against The Machine’s one and only musical guest spot on the show, protesting the host for that night, billionaire and then-presidential candidate Stephen Forbes? The band was initially slated to perform two songs, including “Bulls on Parade,” a protest song against capitalism, but after their upside-down American flags were taken down, they left the premises of “SNL” in response and were subsequently banned from the show by Lorne Michaels. So, as you can see, taking a political stance with music can go either way.
One key question is, with political expression in music, where exactly is the limit? Where do you find that balance between not making a point and overdoing it? Well, let’s look at the examples given. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album was a concept album released in the early 1970s that was contradictory to the music being played on the airwaves at the time. It was carefully constructed and clearly made a point in its lyrics, but it was also music that was pleasurable to listen to. People could enjoy the music not only on a protest front but also, just because it was good music that was a clearly masterful creative expression from Gaye.
Eminem, who is no stranger to political expression, in his cypher, decided to take an opposite approach and just be completely blatant, using the full truth and not pulling any punches against the President. Metaphors comparing Trump to Marvel Comics’ The Thing and painting Trump as everything he has been proven to be disloyal, a liar and a coward among other qualities made up the bulk of the piece. The cypher was controversial enough to be featured on the news, but not enough to make Eminem lose his credibility or fans. He was also able to make sure to not go too over the top, as he has done many times before in the past in songs, such as “Without Me.” With those two examples, both Gaye and Eminem understood their platform, who the intended audience was and how much ammunition to use to make the point.
They both understood that going too far would cause people to come after them rather than focus on the music. However, if they didn’t go far enough, the audience would’ve completely missed the point. As a result, they created two magnificent pieces of protest art that not only got the message out but also garnered critical acclaim for the sheer complexity and dynamics as pieces of music. Now, let’s take a look at Rage Against The Machine and Sinéad O’Connor. Both of them were unable to get their messages out effectively, each for a different reason.
When O’Connor performed her rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” she began singing about child abuse entirely out of context, which caught the entire audience off guard, especially when she tore the picture of Pope John Paul II and yelled “fight the real enemy.” Rage Against The Machine, however, were not one who took subtlety in their work. They understood their context, as they were the musical guests of “Saturday Night Live” in an episode where Stephen Forbes, a Republican candidate for President in 1996, as well as the billionaire owner and namesake of Forbes Magazine, was hosting. And, understanding that Rage is a band notoriously anti-capitalist, they were going to make a statement. However, the execution was what got them into trouble, picking the song “Bulls on Parade,” a title with an allusion to the infamous Wall Street statue, and hanging upside-down American flags. It was, in fact, the flags that got them kicked off the show.
So, why did these two fail where Eminem and Marvin Gaye succeeded? Well, it was because Gaye and Eminem knew when to be over the top and when to be subtle. Also, they understood a thing or two about proper context. Even though, knowing what we know now, O’Connor’s protest was effective, back in 1992, not many knew the truth of what was going on, and so, the act was deemed not only a career-killer but also wildly unnecessary and an attack against someone who had delivered a lot of good into the world.
The protest’s impact entirely depends on context. Rage Against The Machine’s context was well-established, and the symbolism of upside-down American flags, a symbol of distress, were sufficient. However, people already knew that “Bulls on Parade” was a song that criticized capitalism, and the usage of the flags were merely overkill in an otherwise effective performance. So, where is the line drawn?
Based on these examples and others, I can say that, in my mind, the line is drawn when the point is made clear but not too clear, and the subject is put into context within the minds of the people. If there is no overkill and the point is sufficiently made, then, in the end, a good protest song can work. Here’s to the many causes and the many songs ahead.