Music and Politics
I don’t know when the dynamic began, but songs like “God Bless America”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and National Anthems around the globe show us that using music to support and enhance political causes has been done for a long time.
Orleans has a long history of writing, recording and performing songs that are issue-related; we’ll get to that in a minute.
To first bring this subject into a more modern light, here are a few songs from recent decades that have been used by politicians who also believe in the power of music (often resulting in author and/or artist objections!)
The list includes Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (which Ronald Reagan was asked to stop using), recently John Mellencamp’s “This Is Our Country” and “Still The One”, which ‘Bush 43′ used in his 2004 re-election bid. Our band Orleans was NOT pleased; the song’s co-author demanded that Republicans stop using it, which the RNC quickly and publicly claimed to do. Then in 2006 John Hall ran for Congress and won (D-NY19)!
Clearly, many of us creative types can be quite passionate re: political affiliations with our work!
I also believe that being in Ithaca as a young man in the late 60s / early 70s had a lot to do with how I came to see the symbiotic relationship between music and politics. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change that part of my life one bit! THANKS, Ithaca!
However, this piece is written mainly because I am proud of Orleans’ history of supporting decidedly progressive candidates and worthy social causes, and because I strongly believe that we are in a time that has unprecedented stakes riding on how this political year here in the USA plays out.
Like 1968, when there was a devastating and unpopular war, serious racial tension and upcoming complex Conventions and a Presidential Election, 2008 is seeing the same features in the news on a daily basis. Popular music in the late 1960s centered around reflective and activist songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and various ‘protest’ songs. That music defined pop culture and clearly made a big difference, encouraging and eventually helping to bring an end to the Viet Nam War and to ease the seething, violent Civil Rights struggle.
Forty years on, music is delivered and accessed in a completely different way. What’s left of broadcast radio airs a very limited playlist and the public, with more choices, no longer necessarily listens to the same ‘hits’ repeatedly. Instead, music is fragmented with niches at satellite radio, digital TV, Internet radio, independent artists with countless websites, download sites like iTunes and a dwindling market for ‘brick and mortar’ store products like CDs.
By its very nature, this has changed the immediate relationship between music, the public and, thus, also politics. It’s harder to reach a large group of people with the same message. However, some mega-artists – U2, Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails, Indigo Girls, others – still carry strong messages to mass audiences, while smaller and/or ‘indie’ artists have loyal followings who pay close attention to what these artists say and do through music.
When Orleans began in 1972, we quickly got behind George McGovern’s anti-war and generally progressive campaign. Over the years, we played in support of Jimmy Carter, Gov. Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and many state and local candidates we found appealing. With John Hall’s lead, we played a lot of rallies opposing the proliferation of nuclear power. John became one of the true leaders of the No Nukes movement. 1979’s No Nukes concerts, film and LP raised significant funds for that cause, and the Hall song “Power’” is THE “alternative energy anthem” to this day. Orleans remains proud to include it in our shows!
Speaking of Hall / Orleans ‘energy songs’, “Cold Spell” is from 1974’s “Let there Be Music” LP and ‘Plutonium is Forever” is a calypso spoof in the anti-nuke musical catalog. Lance and I wrote / recorded “Save Our Planet” for 1982’s “One of a Kind” album; 1994’s “Heaven” (written with John & Bob Leinbach) is on several Orleans releases; “Get A Life” makes a strong statement, too. “It All Comes Back”, on our 1973 debut, still resonates.
Orleans played – and still plays – often in support of efforts for what we perceive as improvement on the current state of the nation and world. Women’s issues, gay rights (which is merely a subset of Human Rights), children’s advocacy and anti-violence are some of what we’ve deemed ‘worthy’ causes.
Individually, John has punctuated all of his solo and John Hall Band work with ‘issue’ songs; I have done the same on my “UnHerd” and “HandMade” solo CDs, and the UnHerd CD helps fund the nonprofit Sunshine for HIV Kids, Inc. Let’s not forget that drummer Charlie Morgan’s first concert as The Elton John Band’s drummer was 1984’s Live Aid, the mother of all ‘music-as-political-statement’ events!
Here in 2008, I’m thrilled to have already done one gig for Sen. Barack Obama’s Campaign. Along with Beth Schafer, I wrote “Build That Bridge”, which became the title song of her latest CD and in turn, a big part of why her band got an Obama gig.
We all hope to do more – Beth, Orleans and many of us in Rock & Pop Masters all want to do all we can to help America find its way back to good leadership, grassroots activism and positive change economically, socially and politically. It is a privilege to have a voice “in front of” an audience, and many of us in that position see both the opportunity and responsibility to use that voice for positive movement beyond our personal lives and immediate concerns.
Music – ‘the universal language’ – can galvanize people into a healthy and energized sense that we are not powerless, that we do share common ideals and goals and that we can, together, actually get things done which can make a big difference for our collective future!
Finally, the young teen in this video says it all better than anyone I’ve ever heard … please check out this powerful 5-minute talk to the United Nations.