Shut up and play the hits: The myth of non-political music

Shut up and play the hits: The myth of non-political music

For some fans of rock acts, Blackout Tuesday dredged up some undesirable politics – the exact kind they’d been indulging for decades.

The ‘Blackout Tuesday’ initiative didn’t quite go as planned. 

There was certainly a nobility in the cause, devised by music execs Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, which aimed to see a show of solidarity from an industry that’s unapologetically profited off African-American expression. What followed was a quandry: whilst the response was overwhelming, confusion surrounding the movement saw allies take to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, blocking out important images of tense demonstrations and police confrontations. 

Social media was awash with urgent pleas and comment-section corrections, but behind the carefully-cultivated veil of brand and persona, labels seemed to be taking some real-world action. UMG established “a $25 million ‘Change Fund’,” and subsidiaries such as Def Jam, Interscope Geffen A&M and Republic Records amplified causes and founded their own in-house initiatives; Warner Music Group pledged $100 million to “charitable causes related to the music industry, social justice and campaigns against violence and racism”; YouTube donated $1 million to the Centre for Policing Equity; and both Sony and Columbia hosted in-house town halls featuring addresses from Benjamin Crump, lawyer to George Floyd. 

It’s a start of sorts, but as Hazel Cills of Jezebel so beautifully noted, “politely stepping back and ceasing business implies that the problem exists outside the industry alone, when the problem is a cornerstone of the industry.” A response to racial injustice should involve more than mere one-off donations from massive media conglomerates – it should involve a reckoning with the very systems that stifle black expression. It’s in the “urban” descriptor, an oft-inescapable brand for many a challenging minority artist, as well as the hiring practices of labels and publications themselves. These are tenets entrenched in a long and ever-exploitative history: one which, like any other corrupted system, requires active effort to recast.

If there’s one thing that Blackout Tuesday brought to light, it wasn’t the complicity of the industry, but the temperament of the fans themselves. The message spread far and wide, and as it reached into largely white legacy acts, rock veterans and chart-topping indie stars, it uncovered a culture that hears without listening, consuming without any attempt at comprehension.

It should come as no surprise that Radiohead joined #TheShowMustBePaused, their history of left-leaning politics and consumerist critiques unlikely to endear them to systems of institutionalised racism. Sadly, it also came as no surprise that some fans were startled by those values, wholly unaltered but now rendered in the written word.

“Political Radiohead is not my favorite Radiohead,” offered one indignant commenter, adding that “creativity should go beyond petty political games.” The dismissive rendering of those so-called “petty political games” notwithstanding, there’s never truly been an apolitical Radiohead: the band’s very first single, the culturally omnipresent Creep, was informed by Thom Yorke’s visions of gender politics in the early ‘90s. “I have a real problem being a man in the '90s,” he told The Boston Globe’s Jim Sullivan in 1993. “Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem.” 

If that motivation is veiled, Radiohead slowly came into more pronounced expressions of politics: Fake Plastic Trees, an anti-materialist anthem, was inspired by the development of Canary Wharf in London; Sulk was steeped in the aftermath of the Hungerford Massacre; and Street Spirit (Fade Out) – one of the group’s most unsettling songs – was prompted by Nigerian author Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. This isn’t a discussion of interpretation, it’s one of intent. These are incontrovertible facts, irrespective of your lease on the music.

Still, the anti-political sentiments weren’t uncommon. “Virtue signalling at it's [sic] worst,” levelled one fan-turned-critic at the ever-outspoken act. “Cringe, take your politics elsewhere,” said one incensed commenter, perhaps intending it for a different band altogether. “Radiohead only music please!! No Fake ‘Political’,” demanded someone of the group that crafted OK Computer, a record defined by social alienation, societal dehumanisation and anti-capitalist values, before creating Kid A, which finds the political in a series of harsh, fear-fuelled juxtapositions. Need I even mention Hail To The Thief? It feels as though, through an unsurprising and congruent statement, the band uncovered a swathe of Radiohead fans who, apparently, are yet to truly listen to a Radiohead song. 

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Elsewhere, the revulsion was stronger still. Fans of The Beatles were particularly aggrieved by the group’s pro-Black Lives Matter message – unsurprising, given their generally older set. “The Beatles used to think all lives mattered…,” guessed one ill-informed fan; “Blue lives matter !!!,” said another. “If this page for Beatles fans is going to become political then I must say goodbye,” said one fan, whose relationship with the music itself could only be described as ‘cursory.’ 

The Beatles were, of course, always fiercely political. Their rock ‘n roll identity was rooted in the African-American origins of the craft, and the band specifically saw Little Richard as a formative influence – “it was all his fault, really,” joked George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Their very existence was presaged by early rockers such as Richard, and their rendition of Roll Over Beethoven – a Chuck Berry hit – takes both style and substance from the original. In a sense, the Beatles could never have eschewed politics: their popular ascension, like that of Elvis, was mired in the systematic biases of disc jockeys, label heads and audiences the world over.

It’s not like The Beatles shied away from their convictions, becoming increasingly outspoken as their career ensued. The searing satire of Harrison’s Taxman took issue with the British Government, whilst Back In The USSR subverted Berry’s patriotism by sketching the poles of the Cold War as roughly on-par. Piggies is an outright Orwellian treatise; Come Together was written for Timothy Leary’s unsuccessful 1969 campaign for the Californian Governorship; and Get Back was initially a protesting satire of Enoch Powell’s vicious anti-immigration views. Revolution seemed to put the damper on questions of more radical resistance with a pithy bar: “but when you talk about destruction / don't you know that you can count me out…”

Seemingly opposed to upheaval though they were, the Beatles’ politics engendered controversy on both the left and the right, musically and otherwise. Paul McCartney defended his use of LSD in television interviews; John Lennon became a target of the FBI, as evidenced in a 1972 Haldeman Memo; George Harrison had his house raided in 1969, the resulting arrest forcing both him and Pattie Boyd to miss McCartney’s wedding. In 1975, Mal Evans – a Cavern Club bouncer turned Beatles longtime personal assistant, with them from ‘63 to the bitter end – was killed by an LAPD officer who mistook his airsoft gun for a real weapon. He was in his own home.

These incidents, like those that occur in our own lives, informed the character of the Fab Four, and in-turn, shaped the music for which they’re hailed. One particular experience resonated deeply with the quartet, and on being presented with a segregated crowd, The Beatles actually refused to play a 1964 show in Jacksonville, Florida. Concert officials relented, and the show went on, though not without some outright declarations: “we never play to segregated audiences and we aren't going to start now," said Lennon on taking to the stage. "I'd sooner lose our appearance money.” It was a moment which led to their 1965 contract, enshrining that refusal to entertain Jim Crow, and that staunch value which underwrote McCartney’s Blackbird, an ode to the civil rights movement. 

Egalitarian though The Beatles musical message was, you can never be too clear on your band’s beliefs. Tom Morello found that out the hard way, with his Black Lives Matter solidarity accidentally alienating an entire swathe of apparent Rage Against The Machine fans. That’s right – Tom Morello, son of a Kenyan anti-colonialist agitator, architect of some of rock music’s most unabashedly political ragers and card-carrying member of the IWW, was scolded by self-professed fans for making things political. “Music is my sanctuary and the last thing I want to hear is political bs when I’m listening to music,” whined one such critic. “Keep running your mouth and ruining your fan base.”

I’m not saying that you can’t like music that breaks with your political beliefs. I’m not even saying that you can’t be surprised about the political persuasions of some artists. I’m just saying that it’s often reflected in the very art we take for granted. I’m just saying that telling Damon Albarn, architect of alternative hip-hop vehicle The Gorillaz, that “all lives matter and do music not politics” is laughable – and it might be time to dust the cobwebs off Demon Days. In that sense, Radiohead, The Beatles and RATM make for conduits of a larger problem: the depoliticisation of art.

In removing art from the conditions in which it was created, we’re doing a great injustice to the artists themselves. You couldn’t remove Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the sentiment of the age; nor could you take Creedence’s Fortunate Son and leave the rhetoric surrounding the Vietnam War. It just wouldn’t add up. Removing music from the struggles it sought to address is like talking a battle from a greater war, or airbrushing an entire theatre from existence. Popular music has seen a push-and-pull of values for decades now, and whilst it’s often a reflection of those virtues, entertainment is a compelling means of championing causes, waging crusades and pushing for equality. 

It was just last year that Old Town Road became a rousing political statement, the chart-topping track interrogating just what it meant to be ‘country’ – a question that continues to linger today. The upbeat party-starter might not have been expressly political, but its very existence precipitated a reconsideration of values, and to talk about Lil Nas X’s hit without touching on those implications would be disingenuous at best.

Art is, and always has been, political in nature. 

It was political when D.W. Griffith shot Birth Of A Nation, his intricate staging and cinematic innovations mobilised in service of the Lost Cause of the South and the nobility of the Klu Klux Klan. It was political when J. Edgar Hoover reluctantly shaped Gangbusters serials in the early ‘30s, a deliberate push to rehabilitate an image of policing purportedly sullied by Scarface, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. It was political when Michael Curtiz shot Casablanca, a towering romance that pairs star-crossed lovers with a fierce propaganda push, and it was political when John Wayne lionized the HUAC in Big Jim McLain.

It was political when Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher and onetime member of the Communist Party, wrote Strange Fruit, later imbued with melody by Laura Duncan. It was political when Buffalo Springfield wrote For What It’s Worth, or when Creedence turned out seven records in five years, the Southern-tinged swamp rock filled with anti-war sentiments and ‘60s idealism befitting their San Francisco origins. You bet it was political when Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, much like The Times They Are A-Changin’, pinned hopes for positive change on an ascendant generation. 

It was political when Paul Robeson, a folk singer, Civil Rights Activist and victim of McCarthyism, was prevented from performing a benefit in 1969. A mob took to attendees with bats, the police failed to intervene, and the American Legion celebrated their success in postponing the show with vicious violence, burned crosses and lynched effigies. It feels reductive and patronising to say that Midnight Oil fused politics with their very identity, but a handful of fans were nonetheless surprised by their full-throated advocacy last week. 

There is no such thing as apolitical art. No film, program, novel, poem or song was created in a sociopolitical void, and the values that inform creative expression are as rooted in the here-and-now as they are the ideals of the author. That’s not to say that all art is political – though you could certainly argue as much – but at the very least, no art is totally without a political identity, whether it be expressly partisan, largely interpersonal or wholly introspective.

You can yell “shut up and play the hits” all you’d like, but for many a band – Radiohead, The Beatles and Gorillaz amongst them – the hits are all but inextricable from those very ideals. Music is not some escapist fantasy, distinct from the world in which we live, and the moment that we stop pretending it is, we run the risk of learning something. 

Melodies and lyrics are some of the deftest political tools we have. In short: turn it up.