What gives you the right?

3 07 2011

My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.
— John Lennon

An issue I’ve wrestled with for years is what role, if any, musicians and performers should have in expounding on the political, social, religious and economic issues of the day.  I default to a “less is more” approach.  That’s probably  because I grew up in era of particularly preachy musicians.  John Lennon had just semi-retired to househusbandry about the time I first started buying records.  Since then, I’ve heard the issues of the day tackled by a number or especially opinionated performers: Bono, Don Henley, Michael Stipe and Madonna.  Politics, especially left-leaning viewpoints, and music seem almost inextricably tangled and pontificating pop artists are still easily found.  Lady Gaga’s foray into gay rights is pretty good current example.   I bristle at being told what to think about an issue by a pop star.  The feeling I often have is, “Why are you qualified to talk about ______? You’re just a guitar player,” or, “What gives you the right to tell me how to vote?”

The flip side of that is that I recognize that everyone has a right to his or her opinion on a subject, regardless of what that subject might be.  Performers have a platform that many of us do not have, so we know what they feel about an issue, whether they intend to “preach at” us or not.  I certainly exercise my right of expression on forums like this (though I’m obviously not heard in the way that John Lennon or Lady Gaga would be.)  I can’t say that I wouldn’t be tempted to spout my opinions on political and social issues if I had that kind of audience.  I admit that it is potentially hypocritical to expect musicians and other artists not to speak their mind simply because I don’t particularly care what they have to say most of the time.  It is not wrong to speak out because you have the platform to do so.  (I would suggest, though, that simply having the platform does not mean the public wants to hear your two cents.)

Where is the sweet spot?  Where is the happy middle?  I don’t suppose there is one.  This issue boils down to the hypocrisy that resides in many of us.  If I agree with you, I don’t mind hearing what you have to say.  If I don’t, it’s easy to want to tune you out.

Maybe John got it right when he said that the artist’s role is to “express what we all feel,” not to “tell people how to feel.”  I like that notion, though it seems like wishful thinking.  If he were here, I think Mr. Lennon would say that what he means by “we all” would be the majority, or maybe more limitedly, those of a particular generation.  Surely by all he didn’t mean everyone!  Maybe he did mean everyone.  John was prone to grandiose ideas and romantic notions about art and humanity.  I wouldn’t mind him or any other artist speaking for all of us if there were an “all of us.”  The problem is that there is very little on which we all agree.  I cannot think of too many issues on which there is anything near consensus in the United States specifically or the western world more generally.  Take into account differing worldviews between east and west, and you have even less commonality.

Sadly, at least in my opinion, we end up back at the artist speaking for him or herself and his or her (limited) audience.  Lady Gaga speaks out on an issue and I’m left either to agree with her, being pleased she has expressed her (our) opinion, or I react by saying something like, “Who gives a **** what she thinks?!”  Maybe I just ignore it and pretend I don’t care.  For me, that’s tougher.  I’d rather know or at least believe there is an artist out there somewhere that “expresses what we all feel” than to keep wishing they’d all shut their mouths and just entertain me.




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