By Emerson Brown and Katrina Ortman, Opinion Editor and Online Arts and Opinion Editor
// “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us” echoed through the air as protestors united for the March for Our Lives demonstration in Walnut Creek on March 24, 2018; 2,500 miles away in Washington D.C., Ben Platt and Lin-Manuel Miranda echoed the same lyrics on a national stage. This cross-continental gun control protest demonstrates the power of politics in music spanning nationwide on stages, through Spotify, and everything in between.
Musicians incorporate politics into music by supporting good causes through fundraisers and bringing awareness to political issues. Inadvertently, they affect how listeners – including Acalanes High School students – view the world around them.
Political music is a vague category that is subjective to each listener, but it primarily focuses on songs with a distinct political message in their lyrics about ongoing issues or the political climate.
One of the most mainstream musicians of the past decade, Macklemore, dabbles frequently in controversial topics through his rap music. A notable example is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ song “Same Love” about the Obergefell v. Hodges court case, in which the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage. Another song is “Wednesday Morning” where Macklemore shares his thoughts and reaction to the 2016 election.
The release of these tracks invoked mixed reactions among listeners, and some called for Macklemore to keep his political views separate from his work. This occurrence is common within the music industry where artists feel pressured to appeal to their fanbase and produce well-received music that is not true to themselves.
However, some fans disagree with the notion that artists should remove politics from their work.
“I think artists should be able to do whatever they want,” sophomore Elijah Pockell-Wilson said. “Even if it comes from any political spectrum or any topic, regardless of how you agree with that, it’s a pathway to be able to make interesting music.”
Solo artists are not alone when it comes to politics; the political world strongly impacts the modern musical theater community.
Many high schoolers may remember their “Hamilton” phase, and while they might look back on it with embarrassment, the musical carries many significant political viewpoints in its lyrics, casting, and themes.
Miranda, the playwright behind “Hamilton”, consciously cast people of color as a juxtaposition to the current lack of representation in the United States. He aimed to celebrate the diversity of modern society in a traditionally undiverse historical narrative. In addition, the casting of immigrants conveys to the audience that the U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants.
Drama teacher Ed Meehan describes musical theater as split up into two basic categories: entertainment for the masses and examinations of society’s issues. He places “Hamilton” into the latter group, connecting it to the progressive nature of theater.
“Most of us in the theater see our job as that of inclusion, of including all people regardless of whatever that person is,” Meehan said.
Meehan acknowledged the increasingly large role of the LGBTQ+ community in the musical theater. Several shows featuring LGBTQ+ characters and themes ran on Broadway in the past few decades, including “Fun Home,” “Falsettos,” and “Kinky Boots”.
“This notion of bringing gender issues or LGBTQ+ issues into theater, that’s our job; that’s what we’re doing,” Meehan said.
Besides advancing diversity in theater with his political splash “Hamilton”, Miranda continues to influence consumers through his music as an individual.
In support of the March For Our Lives movement, Platt, the star of “Dear Evan Hansen”, and Miranda performed “Found/Tonight” at the march in Washington D.C. and donated all of the proceeds to the March For Our Lives.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic confined people to their houses, and some artists have stepped up to provide live music. Death Cab For Cutie lead singer, Ben Gibbard, hosts daily one hour live streams on YouTube and Facebook to play his own music and cover other songs. Each of Gibbard’s performances highlights a different charity in the Seattle area, the first hotspot of COVID-19 in the United States.
Miranda and Gibbard demonstrate how musicians can have a direct influence on issues around them through charitable giving. Songs evolve into rallying cries for social movements, uniting protesters under an anthem.
Oftentimes, artists’ political engagements result from personal experiences and connections, and the music and politics become inseparable from the artist. On the other hand, listeners often see the artist and their art as two distinguishable entities.
“I try to separate the music from the actual person, and sometimes that’s really hard to do,” Pockell-Wilson said.
Here, Pockell-Wilson refers to the increasing extremity of artists’ comments outside of their music across social media platforms. Polarization has steadily increased throughout the U.S., and this also applies to performing artists.
It is up to each individual at what point they separate an artist’s actions and political views from the artist’s products. While it is easy to ignore a singular incident with limited real-world impact, substantial and repeated actions that listeners do not agree with can steer them away from that artist permanently.
Most recently, surfacing information on Michael Jackson’s involvement in pedophilia causes even die-hard fans to turn away from his music. Multiple radio stations have pulled his songs from their playlists, and individuals boycott his music because of the severity of his actions.
Social issues in music persist in the present and intertwine into political systems. The actions of artists hold the power to both unite and divide listeners, therefore having a grasp on the public and impacting government.
The symbiotic relationship between politics and music constantly evolves according to current issues and controversy. Although it leads to strife between listeners and the artist, artists have the right to express themselves freely and initiate change for causes they believe in.
“All of this [art] was started not to entertain, but to educate or to worship or to process,” Meehan said. “We’re telling stories to do all of those things, and whatever political landscape you’re part of, what better way to communicate these things than using art to do it.”