What happens when music fails to inspire, but instead entertains only? Is such a thing possible, and is it occurring now?
Social justice, politics and music have always been intertwined, yet, in this age of celebrity addiction, personalities seem to drown out principles, especially if the personality happens to be a hunk or a babe.
The US attention span grows shorter by the second, however some can still remember back to 2008, when led by young people – many first-time voters – the nation was in a furor about the war and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the shrinking middle class. There was a populist swell based on humanistic principle, bringing about a brief time when civil rights attorneys were on TV regularly, ranting about then-President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programs and other civil liberties infringements, to say nothing of the financial collapse.
America was outraged – sick and tired of being sick and tired. We wanted change and we used our voices to demand it.
People were protesting in the streets, often speaking out with slogans, chants and songs, sure that change would soon come along, not that it would magically appear, but that it would be realized, because the public was willing to work for it.
Or were we really?
Then, along came this handsome guy with a funny name – Barack Obama, who was himself a civil liberties attorney. And low and behold, this Obama fellow appeared to be everything of which the disenchanted majority had dreamed. A new, young senator running for president, Obama declared his loyalty to the people, pledging his allegiance to progressive ideals should we elect him to our highest office.
Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed the Obama campaign and Caroline Kennedy, daughter to President John F. Kennedy, wrote an inspiring op-ed for The New York Times entitled “A President Like My Father.”
America’s premiere political family, the Kennedy’s, had embraced him as one of their own. The deal was sealed.
As a collective euphoria swept the nation, a group of high-ranking Republicans crossed party lines to endorse Obama’s run, creating a web site called RepublicansForBarack.org. Unbelievable; the whole affair was seemingly too good to be true, but there it was in front of our eyes. And being that Obama was bi-racial, there it was, literally, in black and white.
Picking up on Obama’s iconic campaign slogan, the masses sang, “Yes, we can.” A YouTube video was made of this song, featuring celebrities of every sort.
Like every wave of generational change, the “Yes We Can” song and slogan were born out of anger, pain and frustration, but the music channeled that negative energy into positive change, reconciliation and a coming together.
As a nation fighting for civil rights for blacks 40 years prior, we sang, “We Shall Overcome”; as a people, we found ourselves singing in unison again, knowing that hope was on the horizon. Trusting that we could indeed overcome the unsavory Bush legacy, we sang, “Yes We Can,” believing in Obama’s beautiful words of inspiration.
But had we overcome, really?
President Obama is a guy who has enough charm to turn Oscar the Grouch into a choir boy. He’s a man who also has matching wit and intelligence – pecs and pearly whites to put you in a trance. However, more and more, it seems the left is complaining that Obama, far from being progressive, acts more like a Republican – what we’ve been trying to get away from, like George Bush and Dick Cheney.
And yet, we still like him.
In an article penned last spring entitled “A Carefully Crafted F**k You,” Nathan Schneider interviewed Judith Butler – philosopher, theorist and social critic – who commented on the curious polarity of President Obama, persona versus politic, by saying:
“I think we have to learn how to separate our impressions of Obama the man as both thoughtful and inspiring from the policies of the Obama administration. Perhaps then we can begin to see that the politics of the administration are very separate from the impression of the man. This is a painful lesson to learn, and I wonder whether the U.S. public and its European allies will actually learn it.”
Michael Moore, one of the most liberal movers and shakers in the nation, seems to be pondering this dynamic as well. In an interview earlier this year with Wolf Blitzer, though Moore gushed about his affection for the president, saying how much he liked him, in that same conversation, he quickly followed up, saying Obama’s health care plan was a joke. Moore also spoke about how disappointed he was in the Democrats, their failure to deliver on all those high-minded campaign promises that the president and his party convinced so many to believe in.
Weeks before that, Moore had sat with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!, expressing how very torn he was with the left under the leadership of Obama, in love with the personality, yet hating many of the principles and policies.
However upset, Moore still held out hope.
Yet, for as much as the president’s constituents and fans seem endlessly forgiving and adoring of him, are we to give him free pass after free pass when he promises Medicare for all, but instead delivers a mandate that all citizens must purchase private insurance? He promised the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the US gulag in Cuba, but a year and a half later the stench of torture still waifs from the Caribbean – are we to turn a blind eye as well?
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When he accepts a Nobel Peace Prize, then days later orders more guns and bombs to the lands of desperately poor people, where too many civilians have already died gruesome deaths at the hands of American solders, what’s the appropriate response? And when Congress bails out a handful of private banks with more cash than one can count, but fails to resolve this nation’s chronic unemployment problem and its horrific foreclosure travesty that continues to sink us all, is there to be no outrage, accompanied by musical protest?
Does a love for the persona satisfy Obama’s handling of the multi-million gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Robert Gibb’s outrageous comments about the “professional left” or the Gaza flotilla massacre?
On the campaign trail, Obama was against offshore drilling. He railed at his opponent, John McCain, over McCain’s endorsement of offshore oil drilling. That was in 2008, but by this year – less than a month ago – he declared his own support for the process, firmly expressing a viewpoint that offshore drilling is sensible and safe. Yet, now in office, with nearly five million gallons of oil and chemical dispersants having spewed into the waters off the Gulf Coast for the last several months, as a result of reckless offshore oil drilling, under Obama’s leadership The Department of Interior continues to issue offshore drilling permits.
Of course, the government is not to blame for the actions of the private companies responsible – BP, Transocean and Halliburton. Or is it, at least in part, a collaborator by providing ample opportunity for disaster through weak or nonexistent regulation – rubber-stamping hazardous practices?
Forty years ago, when folk goddess Patti Smith, who helped pioneer punk in America, sang “People Have the Power,” she wasn’t just trying to land a new record deal. Smith was speaking truth to power, knowing that she’d be branded an outsider, no matter how good-looking and charismatic the leader she was protesting was at that time.
Last year, when Jamaican-American Grace Jones, a gender-bending, disco-punk diva, sang “Corporate Cannibal,” she wasn’t sitting around waiting for a golf date invite with the president and his Wall Street friends. She knew exactly what trouble she might get in when she released her title track referring to corrupt bankers and traders as “digital criminals.”
Most Americans have probably never heard of Jones’ song, but were we all fully in touch with the horrors of this moment, seizing it as a creative zenith – a chance to act and empower ourselves, we’d all be singing her song in the streets right now, referring to it often in emails and tweets. Because here’s what she says, singing out loud the hidden thoughts of crony elites, doing so with startling lucidity:
Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate
Your meat is sweet to me
You’re my life support, your life is my sport
I’m a man-eating machine
Corporate cannibal, digital criminal
Corporate cannibal, eat you like an animal
I’ll make you scrounge, in my executive lounge
You pay less tax, but I’ll gain more back
My rules, you fools
Sanitize, homogenize, vaporize … you
I’m the spark, make the world explode
I’m a man-eating machine, I’ll make the world explode
In addition to calling out the plutocrats, a message of unity and love is also important, lest we forget Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” and the Beatles “All We Need Is Love.” Creative transformation also requires an engaged imagination, as in John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Standing yet again at another crossroad, this time America is seemingly at odds with someone we adore. Nevertheless, if we are to survive hard times, voters must find a way to decouple personality from principle, holding leadership accountable before the world explodes.
It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but as tempting as it is to heap the blame of our current ills on George W. Bush, we are well into Barack Obama’s presidency at this time, and everything that happens now happens on his watch.
The US must sober up from its drunk with celebrity, remembering that it’s we who have the power. We have been warned; we know this script, and already in the short history of people-powered activism, far too many, both living and dead, have sacrificed too much so that all might enjoy the freedoms now eroding before our eyes.
Artists of all kinds, but most of all our song makers, need to reinvigorate the front lines of dissent in lyrical revolt against current transgressions, rising as a people, using music as our weapon of choice, taking a cue from Henry Giroux’s suggestions in a recent speech, “Democracy Has Taken A Major Hit.” And to remedy this malaise, whether addressing the environment or the economy, history has proven that we should arm ourselves with guitars, not guns – making peace not wars – reviving our communities as places of sanity, equality and abundance.
Noted peace activist and full-time protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq, said last year at a rally, “Even though the facade has changed in Washington DC, the policies are still the same.” Going on, she said, “We have to realize, it is not the president who is power, it is not the party that is in power, it is the system that stays the same, no matter who is in charge.”
From where we are now, it may seem a long road to travel, aiming for an ideal that appears always out of reach. Though in truth, what the collective past has taught is that as long as there is resistance, there is hope, giving birth to lasting change in the right direction. And yet, the doors to empowerment can only be flung open when artists use their intelligence to become effective social critics and advocates. It is a concept best stated by Tolu Olorunda in “Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part III),” where he says in part:
Artists bold enough to claim their function as intellectuals must rise up without fear of consequence – without dread of loneliness – staying committed through this long distance fight for restoration of hope. Artists must understand their moral responsibilities as firing up dreams of a better tomorrow, and an unfinished today.
Tools of liberation need not be death creators, or serve as any type of instrument of violence. Instead, we must reclaim individual and collective power by first fighting for mind space, shrugging off scripted herd-thought sent down from on high. Picking up guitars, microphones, keyboards, drumsticks and tambourines alongside other activists, artists must channel good vibrations that shake and stir the soul of this nation, reminding us all that we, the people, have always had the power.
Sure, we might allow it to slip from our hands from time to time, but knowing this, we can always claim it back … anytime we like.