This video showed up on my Facebook feed the other day, an interview with Richard Ashcroft, promoting his new album. Towards the end of the discussion, Richard talks about how certain artists become too involved in political causes, instead of focusing on entertaining their audience.
It's an age old question, really, and there are many ways to approach it. Politicians have, of course, no problems with pop stars expressing their opinions, as long as they agree with them. They are happy to exploit musicians' sway over fans when it suits their purpose, and frankly, they would be stupid not to. However, if an artist is out of line with their agenda, you start to hear that musicians should stick to what they know best and not meddle in the grown-up business of statesmanship. It's an argument that is, in my view, deeply undemocratic. At the very core of democracy is the idea that we all have a stake and a say in how things are run, whether we are politicians, farmers, businessmen or indeed artists.
Richard Ashcroft's take is different. If you listen carefully, it's clear that he doesn't mean that music should just be bubble gum, but believes that its principal purpose is to provide an escape from the mundane, an alternative to our harsh reality, and that is thrown out the window if the message from the stage is just a continuation of our frustrations outside the concert hall. To me, the debate here lies around the question of whether it is possible to lock out the outside world.
We live in a relatively peaceful time in our history here in Europe. But social media bring existing and even perceived conflicts much closer to us than ever before (and trends are pointing in the direction of an increase in the number of conflicts of the worst kind). When politics creep this deep into our everyday lives, I think it's only natural to see artists addressing it in or beside their work and it is their right to do so. I myself have been inspired by political issues in my songwriting. The Bread Line and Running are about our carelessness with the environment, Rant deals with political manipulation, The Old Hometown and Cul de Sac address the erosion of democracy in Hungary and What It Means talks about how powerless we can be against radicalization. I also know many artists personally, who don't have overt political messages in their music but are very much involved in party politics.
In addition, our society is becoming more polarized, and this also creates a huge amount of pressure from our peers to express views on different issues. Thus, artists may not only feel compelled to have their say, but are often forced to make a choice along political fault lines by their environment. And what we consider ethical behavior can vary over time. I'll try to give you a comparison to illustrate what I mean.
While Radiohead were recently lambasted for not cancelling their gig in Tel Aviv, thirty years earlier, Queen's 1986 performance in Hungary, a country which arguably was governed by an equally repressive regime, was hailed as a triumph of cultural exchange. The difference, in my view, was that from the latter half of the 80's up until the 9/11 attacks, the prevailing sentiment was one of reconciliation. This was the age of the end of the Cold War, the peaceful transition from apartheid in South Africa, the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland and the Camp David Summit, coupled with relative economic prosperity. However, the 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon profoundly changed our perceptions. Whatever your take is on the event itself, it was undeniably a spectacular aggression on our way of life. The sense of security that existed before had evaporated and this feeling spread even wider with economic hardship following the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The resulting fear and uncertainty incites us to double down and we find ourselves locked in different camps with very few bridges between them or none at all. Because we feel that our core values, our identity or sometimes our very existence is at stake, there is no room for compromise.
In this sort of environment, it is difficult, nigh on impossible for artists to avoid falling on one side or the other of a political divide. There is no middle ground to speak of, very few will take nuanced arguments into consideration. Thom Yorke found himself despised by BDS supporters and praised by Israeli nationalists, regardless of whether his personal views were closer to that of those in the first group or those in the latter.
I think Richard Ashcroft is a bit out of line when he comes down hard on politically active musicians. Where it is their choice, it is their basic right as citizens. Where it is not, Richard’s views are tantamount to blaming the victim for the murder.