Facing the music?

Here's Bruce Springsteen, discussing his decision to politicize his career:

Your audience invests a lot in you, a very personal investment. There is nothing more personal, in some ways, than the music people listen to. I know from my own experience how you identify and relate to the person singing. You have put your fingerprints on their imagination. That is very, very intimate. When something cracks the mirror, it can be hard for the fan who you have asked to identify with you.

Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your audience's imagination. It's a complicated relationship. So you're asking people to welcome the complexity in the interest of fuller and more honest communication.

The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves. That's asking quite a bit, but that is what happens. When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs, personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As simple as that. You're asking for a broader, more complicated relationship with the members of your audience than possibly you've had in the past.

Actually, I tend not to care about the political beliefs of musicians. When Linda Ronstadt sang the praises of Michael Moore, I thought no more or no less of her music. What bothers me is when the music itself becomes so infested with political drivel that I can't enjoy it. Blatantly political music leaves me cold, but as to the views of the artist, I normally don't care.

What I find interesting about the Springsteen quote is that he obviously realizes that some of his fans really do care, and will feel let down by the fact that he doesn't share their view of the war in Iraq. This says more about the peculiar relationship that develops between fan and performer than it does about the merits of the disagreement. Why, for example, do Bruce Springsteen's thoughts on the war matter more to his fans than would similar thoughts by a classical musician matter to a symphony patron? Why would the political views of a rock musician strike more of a chord with people than those of an actor? I can't stand Sean Penn's politics, but I recognize he's a great actor. Are these things completely rational?

Moving to the visual arts, it becomes even more irrational. Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera were dyed-in-the-wool Communists, of the Stalinist variety. Yet their art is considered esthetically acceptable enough to decorate many a Republican home. The political views of fiction writers (leftist Ernest Hemingway will serve as an example) are even less relevant to his readers. Why does no one worry about the political views of a sculptor? How about an architect?

Is this because the audience does not identify with a writer or a visual artist, or with most performing artists, whereas rock and roll (and to a certain extent, country music) is said to be personal? Why is it more personal than, say, bluegrass, jazz, or swing? And why would Springsteen's fans feel more betrayed than, say, fans of Lionel Hampton?

I think the mechanism is poorly understood, and has to do with a certain adolescent mindset I remember from my youth: kids who take it as a personal insult if you don't like their favorite musician or group. Similarly, there are people who take political disagreement as a personal insult, and this is one of the reasons that political disagreement often (and so quickly) becomes ad hominem. (Religion, while it can be even more emotionally charged, at least tends to be more of a "protected category," and people are more likely to understand that religious differences are not meant as personal insults. Usually.... but not always!)

Whether someone agrees with my politics ought not to matter any more than whether they like my taste in music. But to those whose musical tastes are already defensively personal, a sudden political disagreement with their favorite rock "hero" must be a terrible letdown.

Of course, I say this as someone long accustomed to having people dislike my tastes -- in music and politics.

So I'm too callused to let Springsteen's thoughts affect my musical tastes. I like the song "Born in the USA" and his views on Iraq won't change that any more than his views on Vietnam.

Besides, people have been known to change their minds. (And their music.)

posted by Eric on 09.28.04 at 10:04 AM


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Tracked on September 29, 2004 5:43 AM


I don't care that Death Cab for Cutie played at a Kerry benefit, and I don't care that John Vanderslice even has some negative characterizations of troops in Guantanamo and Afghanistan in one of his songs. They're still good.

Dennis   ·  September 28, 2004 5:36 PM

Richard Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite and a precursor of Nazism, which is one main reason why Nietzsche broke with him, yet I still love his music.

I am going to lodge here a complaint against the idea that "political disagreement" is something that should -- or even can -- be abided with nerveless equanimity. I see this all the time, and it is one of the most contemptible things in contemporary politics: this "Can't We All Just Get Along?" bleat for peace & quiet in a time like this.

No. Some of us cannot do that, and that's because "disagreement[s]" in the category that we're talking about are not that harmless. We're not talking Ford vs. Chevy, here, or baseball vs. football. If you remember the (old) New Left saw about "the personal is political", I am here to say that it was precisely backwards: the political is always personal. That's because at the bottom of every government move -- to any magnitude and in any direction -- there lies a well-oiled and loaded .45, ready to destroy your life if you happen to see things your own way in a different direction and are sufficiently determined to assert your own command of your own affairs.

That is not mere "disagree[ment]", and to couch these matters in that term is to flatly ignore the immutable reality of human life willfully destroyed in bits and pieces every hour of every day, and worse: it is to equate the righteous protest of victims with the assertions of the predators.

This "disagreement" meme needs to have stake driven through its black heart, once and for all.

Billy Beck   ·  September 29, 2004 12:38 PM

"Can't we all just get along?" I'm sure I've said that in sarcasm at one point or another. I tried to get along when I sat on Berkeley's Police Review Commission and found myself threatened by mobs. Under these circumstances, begging to be allowed to disagree was an act of political courage.

I don't think the political should be personal, but I recognize it is. That's why I plead for peace (civility, really) while keeping my guns at the ready.

You are certainly right that "at the bottom of every government move -- to any magnitude and in any direction -- there lies a well-oiled and loaded .45, ready to destroy your life if you happen to see things your own way in a different direction and are sufficiently determined to assert your own command of your own affairs."

The Second Amendment is supposed to empower citizens to turn the tables on the government -- if necessary. The right to disagree is grounded in the First Amendment, but it is backed up by the Second.

I'm not naive enough to imagine that we'll all get along, but I'll always prefer civility to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. And assuming it ever comes to gunfire, what's wrong with keeping one's head cool and nerves steady?

Eric Scheie   ·  September 29, 2004 1:04 PM

What Bill said. and what Eric said, too.

Architects don't waste your valuable architectural meeting design time and money by boring you with their misguided political views ala Springstein and Rondstadt - or if they do, you fire them.

Same as I do to actors etc. who take shameless advantage of their celebrity status to foist their uninformed views down everybody's throat. The only to shut them up is to starve them, I guess.

Persnickety   ·  September 29, 2004 2:10 PM

"Before societies fall, just such a stratum of wise, thinking people emerges, people who are that and nothing more. And how they were laughed at! How they were mocked! As though they stuck in the craw of people whose deeds and actions were single-minded and narrow-minded. And the only nickname they were christened with was 'rot.' Because these people were a flower that bloomed too soon and breathed too delicate a fragrance. And so they were mowed down.

These people were particularly helpless in their personal lives: they could neither bend with the wind, nor pretend, nor get by; every word declared an opinion, a passion, a protest. And it was just such people the mowing machine cut down, just such people the chaff-cutter shredded."

(Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment In Literary Investigation", 1973, Harper & Row, Inc., Vol. I, Part I, "The Prison Industry", ch. 5, "First Cell, First Love", pp. 188-189, emphasis added)

Billy Beck   ·  September 29, 2004 4:29 PM

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