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Music as a political platform

Wendlandt is a sophomore broadcast journalism major and can be contacted at michael.wendlandt@drake.edu

I heard the news that the rock band Rage Against the Machine is coming to Wisconsin next week to protest the anti-union bill that is causing widespread controversy. Their impending arrival made me realize that there can be a definite problem when politics and music intertwine.

When we look at some musicians, we clearly see at least some political influence in their songs. From prominent country artists Toby Keith and Alan Jackson, to acts such as Green Day and Bob Dylan, it is blatantly obvious where their political beliefs lie on the spectrum.

In American history, whenever there is a time of conflict we have seen an influx of music coming from both sides of the political spectrum. In the following segments, I will look at two different time periods, the Vietnam War and the war on terror.

When the Vietnam War started in the late 1960s, most of popular music that came out had something to do with the war, whether it was good or bad (most of it was bad). The most obvious was the song “War” by Edwin Starr. I’m not saying that its ideals are good or bad, but it is definitely a liberal ideal. The only positive song for the Vietnam War that got any good reaction was “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Sgt. Barry Sadler.

The war on terror has had many positive and negative implications on popular music. The most blatantly obvious examples to me have been “American Idiot” by Green Day and “Let’s Impeach the President” by Neil Young. Those have been songs wholeheartedly from the left side of the spectrum. The right has had mostly country artists, such as Toby Keith’s “Angry American.”

Now, this is a music column, but when it comes to popular music right now and in the past, it is clear to see the impact that political beliefs have on music. But this is clear: Politics and music don’t mix on any level, so they should not be referenced in music.

There is absolutely no need for politics to have any place in music, as it is for entertainment, not to try to sway someone to your beliefs. End of story.


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  1. Annie February 20, 2011

    Music, like all the arts, can be used to provoke thought and introspection as well as to “entertain”. When a songwriter creates a song, it is impossible to NOT put one’s belief’s into the lyrics, it is a creation of one’s being and belief’s are part of that being. BUT…the lyrics can only portray PART of a person’s beliefs. To claim to understand a person’s belief from a 3 minute song isn’t fair to the complex nature of a creative person. I for one, am glad to see ALL sides of entertainers. As long as they do not require I agree with them!

  2. dig hed February 21, 2011

    The life of music is the soul. There can never and should never be any boundaries when it comes to expression through music, or any type of art…If you do that, then you limit your voice, and your spirit remains stagnant and dead lifeless. We have the universal right as human beings to express and speak about whatever we are feeling inside, whether the subject be related to politics, love, hate, religion ect.. It’s our right as human beings.

  3. Lisa February 21, 2011

    Mike, but aren’t Musician’s or Actor’s citizens? They also get the right to free speech and the right to voice their opinion in whatever format they choose.

  4. Stella February 21, 2011

    “But this is clear: Politics and music don’t mix on any level, so they should not be referenced in music.”
    So there’s no place for anti-lynching sentiment in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”? There’s no room to condemn Nazi’s in “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” the Holocaust oratorio? Or to express support for civil rights in “We Shall Overcome”?
    Music is a powerful vehicle to express human emotion, INCLUDING political beliefs. Often, it’s a means to effectively convey resistance to oppression. To say otherwise is not only fallacious, but offensive.

  5. A Music Student February 21, 2011

    Without the combination of music and politics, you essentially lead to censorship within music. With that censorship, the loss of free speech is lost. The songs you reference are just the ones that have hit the pop mainstream, which reveals the penetration these songs have had, as well as the impact these songs have had. Music is just one form of free speech, and with the loss of that voice, you seek to censor music as a whole.

    Your whole article bothers me as a musician, and your final paragraph make me question your credibility. At least the article is published in opinion, as there is no earthly way this would make a published journal. Politics has a place in music since music’s inception, and separating the two would be a farce.

  6. Left Without Proof February 21, 2011

    “But this is clear: Politics and music don’t mix on any level, so they should not be referenced in music.”

    I’m sorry but I missed the part where Mr. Wendlant proved to us that this is clear? All I see is miscellaneous examples of popular music that has explicit political messages or has been utilized by a particular political movement. I would venture a guess that almost every political scholar on this campus and every music scholar on campus would argue that the two are ABSOLUTELY compatible and can “mix” on many levels. Wendlant doesn’t engage the argument at all, he doesn’t tell us why the two may or may not work together. He lists random songs and then makes bold claims.

    This writing would receive a failing grade in any class for making claims without support is the number one “no-no” of respectable persuasive writing.

    I am again appalled at the lack of quality control in the Times-Delphic and their writers’ obvious lack of academic integrity. I’m not a journalism major but I’d assume in a program like Drake’s we’re teaching our students that claims should come with proof.

  7. A.J. February 21, 2011

    I’m sorry but this is ridiculous. As a trained musician how dare you tell me what I can and can’t do with my music. I have a right as a musician to write about anything I want to right about and perform it to whoever is earshot of listening to it as you have the right to write whatever you wish. So what you are telling me is that if you had it your way that you would censor me? I never would’ve believed that a journalist would tell someone that they should be censored. I find it really embarrassing for someone who has such limited knowledge of music to think he knows everything about it and write an article such as this.

  8. Kat February 21, 2011

    Did you know that there is a class at Drake offered every couple years called “Music & Politics?” In it, students and the professor discuss the way music has constantly been present in politics over the years. Whether or not you agree with the artist or composer’s political beliefs is irrelevant. It happens, and has been happening for generations, and has been effective. Once again, it does not matter if you (or anyone else) don’t agree with the particular effect. Consider Billie Holiday. When she sang Strange Fruit (about lynchings), was she doing it purely for entertainment? No, and it had an effect. Some people hated her for it but she took the risk because she knew it would have a positive political effect. There are countless other examples (other than Greenday) that I could list and that you would know about if you crawled out from under the rock you’re obviously living under.

  9. ben February 21, 2011


    Your logic… where is it?? Seriously where is your train of thought and your organization of ideas? You aren’t proving anything… merely citing a couple of artists and making the claim that what they did wasn’t appropriate. You’re writing for an institution of higher learning, yet do you think if you turned this in for anything in a class your professor would even accept it?

    On that note WHO exactly decided to accept and publish this piece of trash?! I understand that this is an op-ed and this is Mike’s opinion, but I was under the impression that this type of editorial usually comes from an informed, articulate human being who is well established in their line of interest. Don’t take this personally Mike, but you are clearly none of those things. Please, for the sake of Drake University and the dignity of the fine arts, find something else to write about.

    1. Anna February 27, 2011

      Thank you for voicing my thoughts exactly, Ben.

      It’s embarassing that my school newspaper allows such poor quality writings to be published. If the Times Delphic is this desperate for content, I’m sure a number of music students at Drake would be happy to contribute something.

  10. Luke Dawson February 21, 2011

    I’m not even going to try to argue my point of view, only focus on how poorly your argument or should I say lack of argument was constructed. In the introduction you do not even remotely allude to the fact that you will later conclude that politics and music should should never “intertwine”. Then we see two examples where music and politics do mix, dare I say that the anti-war protests during the Vietnam war… an unsuccessful American intervention… were very much fueled by the music of the time. Now I’m in the middle of what should be the part of your argument where you use evidence to back up your point of view, and I realize not only do I still not know where you stand on the issue or what you’re trying to argue, but I’m actually thinking that you’re going to explain why music and politics should mix.

    Then the article stops, you say with no previous evidence cited in support of your conclusion that music and politics should not be mixed.

    Then you use the written word to say this:

    “There is absolutely no need for politics to have any place in music, as it is for entertainment, not to try to sway someone to your beliefs.”

    That’s a really good point Michael… lyrics (cough) I mean writing should never be used to share opinions.

    I have to assume the editor did not read this article. You’re lucky the D+ campaign happened this year. At least the university supports your quality of work.

  11. Jenna Woodard February 21, 2011

    Mr. Wendlant,

    While I have issues generally with the conclusion you come to in your article, my primary concern is the complete lack of support you provide to justify this conclusion. In the first paragraph, you mention Rage Against the Machine’s “impending arrival” in Wisconsin and how it brought you to the realization that music does not belong in politics. However, you fail to outline any reason for this concern, or what it is about RATM’s involvement with the protests which makes the inclusion of politics into music unpalatable for you. The rest of the article is simply an enumeration of various instances in which artists have created politically-influenced material with no explanation or justification of why this may be harmful (which in itself raises other questions: harmful to whom? In what ways?). Your sudden conclusion takes the reader rather by surprise, as at no point in the article to you provide reasons to support it.

    Dr. Eric Saylor in the music department offers a course called “Music and Politics”. You might consider signing up for it next fall, as this seems to be an issue you feel very passionately about. I daresay you may learn a thing or two, the least of which being how to construct a cogent, logical argument.

  12. Nh February 21, 2011

    First, your first paragraph says that there is a problem when music and politics mix. You go on to give example of it mixing. You end with an assertion that they shouldn’t mix. But you never actually present an argument as to what the repercussions or problems are that arise from the mixing of music and politics. Because your statements lack any structure and, quite frankly, leave me flabbergasted, I have a hard time forming a structured response.

    Second, you said “most of it was bad” in reference to 60’s music in response to the Vietnam war. Do you want to give us some examples of songs? Or how about a gradient for which to judge a song as “bad,” perhaps? Or should we just take your word for it? We have “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” by John Lennon, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” by Simon and Garfunkel, several Bob Dylan songs, “Vietnam Talkin’ Blues” by Johnny Cash. By my equally arbitrary gradient, I think they’re good songs.

    Last, music, a form of art, should be apolitical…because you say so? Last I checked, Saturday Nigh Live is not apolitical. Want to know something else that isn’t apolitical? Religion. If you disagree, you obviously don’t know anything about Caesar or Constantine. And there’s music attached to religion.

    I wholeheartedly disagree with your article. I am very interested in politics and find that musicians that take political stances are generally thoughtful and interesting. I think that immersing politics into music naturalizes controversial topics and stances into public discourse that might otherwise be marginalized. Seeing where the public is drawn, in regards to art, is a good indicator of public sentiment. By the way, I think you should totally get the Instant Karma CD, it was Amnesty International’s Campaign to Save Darfur. They sold music to save lives. It was kind of cool. So is Live 8. But, maybe people that are in the spotlight just shouldn’t help out others with the power they have. That could be a problem.

  13. Dee February 21, 2011

    I guess that means, by your statement (I can’t say argument because you didn’t make one) that “The Star Spangled Banner” should never have been written. I think a semester in Dr. Saylor’s music history class is in order!

  14. Dan February 21, 2011

    “There is absolutely no need for politics to have any place in music, as it is for entertainment, not to try to sway someone to your beliefs. End of story.”

    End of story? I think you have some misconceptions about expression.

    Music is art; a projected arrangement of ideas from one individual (in these cases groups of individuals) meant to affect another person. Music is NOT strictly entertainment. Art allows people to connect on so many levels; emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

    Surely you don’t think an artist’s craft should be restricted to YOU think is right or wrong? If you don’t want to hear it, then listen to something else!

  15. Not Amused February 21, 2011

    What about movies, Mike? Should we eliminate all documentaries (political or not) since they are injected with beliefs, as opposed to just entertaining us? The commenters above me have it right up there. If you restrict art to simple entertainment, you take away from all of the emotion and beauty that is instilled inherently within it.

    This article was pointless and had no direction. Why did you even bother outlining categories for it? Are those the only two wars America has ever fought? Has music never been made to reflect other periods of American history? Why do you say that politics and music don’t mix on any level? You don’t prove that whatsoever and don’t cite anything.

    Please write something original for once. I’m sick of reading your boring, predictable, and long-winded articles.

  16. Ryan February 21, 2011

    The idea that music is only meant for entertainment is pure cockamamie. That’s like saying books are only meant for entertainment, which I hope you don’t think is true as well. And tell Estonia that music is only entertainment. They literally won their freedom from the Soviet Union by singing. Music stopped a war, check it out. This T-D article is severely unresearched on almost every aspect.

  17. Nicole Ervin February 21, 2011

    Music is written because people feel strongly about something (unless it’s cookie-cutter music like Miley Cyrus or the Biebs, but don’t get me started on that…)

    Politics is something people get emotional about. Just like love or heartbreak, loss, want, desire, history. As Americans, we have the right to discuss our political beliefs in whatever medium you choose. You’re a journalist, so you express yourself through op-eds and with your stories. Musicians use their music. Artists use paintbrushes, etc.

    Plus, what Rage does in their free time is up to them. If I had the financial means and time, I’d protest Politicians’ decisions all the time!

  18. Gus February 21, 2011

    Dearest Mike,

    Music, is indeed an ally of expression, just as art and writing are. However, just as a painting must have a subject and a piece of writing must have opinion, music, whether written for popular demand (i.e. your idea of “entertainment”) or specifically to influence the public’s political opinion, always has a purpose backing it, a voice that will never be silenced.

    Forgive me, but I was unable to identify your exact argument…are you saying that all music which makes a political connection or reference is…bad, or perhaps unworthy of listening to? I’m not entirely sure why you think that music is not allowed a voice. Music would be nothing without the passion fueling the fire-the reason for reaching out via song.

    To humor you, I thought I would just name off a few other examples from the past of politically-based music that are infamously well-known and successful: Orff’s Carmina Burana was a pro-Nazi party opera from the 1940s; The national anthem (ooh say can you seeeeee!); Eminem’s “White America”; Simple Plan’s “Crazy”; Beethovens’ Third Symphony; John Lennon’s “Imagine”; The Who’s “We won’t get fooled again”; The list goes on and on, and whether you agree with their messages or not, they are powerful and have influenced millions of opinions.

    Saying that all music, whether it is about politics or love or the size of Big Foot’s foot, is simply FOR ENTERTAINMENT and should not be allowed a particular voice is saying that writers should lack a purpose; a painting should lack a subject. I applaud the above commenter, “dig hed” for phrasing it so well. Music is the soul speaking and expressing. To have a meaningless song would be lifeless, boring, and not worth the effort. Music is passion. Clearly you have no musical experience, or interest, and I am deeply saddened that you are dimwitted enough to publicly announce your foolishness in this area.

    Much love,

    P.S. Your grammar is atrocious.

  19. Andy February 21, 2011

    Is this a real article? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were just trolling for angry comments. Was this for the newspaper or was it for your blog? How can you make such a massively unorthodox statement in just a few hundred words? You give your argument about as much support as a two-legged stool. The difference between your opinion and your opinion as a newspaper columnist is that the latter should typically be informed beyond your personal experience and wikipedia browsing. Keep practicing.

  20. Awesome February 21, 2011

    I would be interested in hearing more legitimate accounts for why music should not include political references in lyrics. If an opinion cannot be sung, then in a sense it seems that this article is saying it should not be voiced at all, which (I would hope) the author is not trying to imply.

    Not just music, but art in general can conform, ignore, agree, or contradict opinions and beliefs that are with that time period. To say that there is no NEED for politics to have any place in music may not be such a bad thing (there is a lot of good music other there still), however educated individuals realize and respect an artist expressing their opinion and not as someone trying to sway someone’s beliefs.

  21. Jenna Woodard February 22, 2011

    The notion that music “is for entertainment” is both false and naive. If this statement were true, then what would be the point of having national anthems? Advertising jingles? Playing music in stores? Why do we use a song to teach our children the alphabet? Why do we use songs to teach children most things? This is but a handful of other uses for music that are not “for entertainment” (namely, constructing a national identity, selling a product, and didactic purposes )

    If music is but entertainment, why did followers of Mao during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s feel it necessary to burn Western instruments and music en masse? Why was the music of Richard Wagner not played in Israel for so long? Why did Stalin feel it necessary to kidnap members of Dmitri Shostakovich’s family and ship them off to gulags in an effort to gain the composer’s compliance with the government? Staying in Russia, why were mass songs such critical tools in gaining the support of the peasantry during their Revolution? Why were operas banned over and over again on European stages? Why did Tipper Gore feel that the organization of a council on music censorship (Parental Music Resource Center) necessary?

    It’s just entertainment, right?

    The definition of politics in this article seems to be extremely narrow. While the term is not defined for the purposes of this writing (an extremely important step in any writing), the meaning I come away with is one pertaining strictly to the American political area, namely “Washington” and policy making. The notion of Politics, however, is vastly greater than this limited interpretation of the term would allow for. Since policy making is ultimately the result of social currents at a given point of time, reflecting what a given people valued at a certain moment based on contemporary events both domestic and foreign, “politics”, by this article’s definition, completely fails to take into consideration the greater Politics of the moment: gender roles, minority oppression, socio-economic standings, geographic location, national identity, family history — in summary, the various factors that contribute our individual senses of identity.

    Music is created by people (for now, anyway) who are influenced by all of the factors listed above, in addition to many more. In being conceived of and created by people who are all operating under these influences, music, then, is inherently political. Whether an artist chooses to be explicit regarding a given “political” (read: policy-related) topic is their own decision, protected by the First Amendment. To state unequivocally, however, that music is purely for entertainment purposes and should be, in all cases, devoid of political material demonstrates a lack of inquiry and true consideration of the topic.

    While the author of the article is entirely allowed his opinion, that music and overt “political” agendas should not be put together, it is usually expected that such an opinion would be supported with instances in which the mixing of these two events proved to be harmful in some way. Nowhere in this article does such support appear. The reader is given the hypothesis that “there can be a definite problem when politics and music intertwine”, which is then followed up with a list of situations in which certain songs, produced in very specific political atmospheres, expressed an overt political agenda. At no point is any explanation regarding how these instances were negative given. It ‘s not until the final sentence, with the casually thrown “music…is for entertainment” that the reader is given a justification for the earlier hypothesis. One cannot be expected to support or understand a view that is not sufficiently substantiated.

    On a more personal note, as a musician, it’s deeply offensive to have the dedication of the last four years of my life casually tossed aside as mere “entertainment”. Frankly, it’s insulting, and it reduces my work and the work of my colleagues to the level of court jesters. I defy anyone to point out to me someone who works as hard as any of the students in the music education program, who regularly take on over 20 hours of credits a semester in order to be able to share their passion for music with the coming generations. My advice to this author would be to think very carefully before passing another such blanket judgment, for they do, in fact, fall upon real people to whom they have real meaning.

    1. Stella February 24, 2011

      Take note, TD journalists. This is how you write an opinion piece.

  22. Really? February 22, 2011

    Mike, I know you like to write about music in your columns, but you obviously don’t know anything about it. I haven’t figured out if you wrote this to spark a reaction, or you honestly don’t understand the art of music.

    Contrary to your belief, music is not written just for “entertainment”. The composer strategically chooses the text, dynamics, progressions, etc to “speak” to an audience. To convey emotion that no other medium can deliver in the same way.

    Music is the ultimate form of human to human communication. Politics and music actually mix very well because the composer is so strong in their beliefs the are inspired to write a song. Often, these pieces are most moving (and this applies to music beyond the Green Day era.)

    Please do not write about things you know nothing about.

  23. ragin' against the machine February 22, 2011

    Politics fuels emotion. Emotion fuels Music. Don’t hate on the great. The politics that fueled music of the late 60s, early 70s created an enormous variety of bands that expanded musical techniques still used today. Without politics, music would be greatly hindered.

  24. Jacob February 23, 2011

    A= There is an historical connection between Music and Politics.
    B= Politics have no place in music.

    If expression A is assumed, then B is not acceptable (represented by the statement A->~B)

    If expression B is assumed, then expression A is incorrect (B->~A)

    The statement here, rather, is “If A, then B” (A->B).

    Regardless of other evaluations, you are arguing with yourself.

  25. Awesome February 24, 2011

    If I get someone to read this article and then auto-tune it, would it be music then? Hmm…let me just call my boy T-pain.

  26. Music Student February 24, 2011

    I give you one example. Dmirti Shostakovich. He literally faught Stalin with his music. Scratch that, music of Russian During Stalin and the Cold War. Composer were required to write music that was happy and glorified Russia in order to force them to believe life was good. Any composer that did otherwise was detained or murdered. Lucky for us, Shostakovich was an important enough figure that he was able to survive. Music is Russian culture was/is so important that it is able to have an incredible influence on the people. Articles like this prove how much music culture has deteriorated in this country.

  27. AllArtisPolitical February 24, 2011

    Exhibit A: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaI5IRuS2aE

    Exhibit B: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

    Not exactly entertainment–merely deep human expression via music.

  28. M. Wendlandt February 26, 2011

    OK, I did not mean to rile too many people up, but I was just writing spur of the moment, and I agree that there is a political message in music. I just think that it could be moderated a little bit. Music doesn’t need to be political. As for the people saying I know nothing about music, that’s a load of crap. Just because I haven’t studied it here at Drake doesn’t mean I know nothing about it. I grew up around music, and I understand music pretty well. So don’t go making assumptions because you disagree with my OPINION.

    1. Kat February 28, 2011

      I grew up finger painting. I am not an artist. I grew up picking wildflowers. I am not a florist. I grew up with several pets. I am not a vet. I grew up reading. I am not a journalist or author and I don’t have any delusions that I am. I did grow up around music and chose to pursue it as a career. I am a musician.

      The majority of music students that are upset by this article are able to respect an opinion if it is well stated and supported. We get upset when an opinion is unsupported and is directly insulting to what we do. Perhaps if you don’t want to cause so much tension, you should avoid “writing spur of the moment” about things that you can’t back up with intelligent discussion and fact. Please, please, please!

  29. music student February 26, 2011

    Alright, I think I’ve waited long enough to post this. I don’t care whether people like the political messages in music or not. I don’t. I listen to music because I think it sounds good. That is it. I don’t care that Dmitri Shostakovich fought Communist Russia with his music – if it sounds bad I won’t listen to it. With that said, I am not saying that I agree with what the author said nor am I praising the quality of the article by any means — I thought it was poorly written, arguments were not strong and lacked a lot of support. People do use music as a propaganda and there’s really no means to change how artist will choose to say their message. However, there beliefs won’t effect me and politics still will not have a part in music for me.

    Ms. Woodard said the following statement in a statement above that “The notion that music “is for entertainment” is both false and naive. If this statement were true, then what would be the point of having national anthems? Advertising jingles? Playing music in stores?” Maybe it’s just that I am living a false and a naive life since music is “just for entertainment” for me. Yes, I am a music major and I once had a thought about pursuing music seriously at a professional level. Because it sounds good. Not to express myself or to send a message. I like to listen and play things that sound good and hate things that sound bad or played poorly. Music isn’t really an art to me, but rather, science.

    Why do I sing the national anthem? Because I can. In fact, I could take away the music and chant the national anthem. The tune to the US National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” was originally a drinking song for a gentlemen’s club in London. But it doesn’t effect me that I sing something loyal to my country to something that’s completely unrelated to the freedom of my country. But it sounds good and I enjoy singing it. Advertising Jingles? They’re fun. Playing music in stores? Walking in stores without the cheesy “elevator music” or the new Katy Perry song can be boring.

    I am not offended that what I have been doing for the past 3 years will have been for the sole purpose of entertainment. Why? Because that’s what music means to me. I’m not overly passionate about the emotional aspects of music and I don’t plan on passing it on to the next generation except as something that can be knowledgeable. Before the Enlightenment, the best composer of the time — Mozart, Haydn, Bach — used their talents for the church or to entertain people and were pretty much “court jesters”

    Politics play a pretty big role in music and has played a big role in the past, but I could care less. I like music when I think it sounds good. The end.

  30. Spirit of Open Debate February 28, 2011

    Please, for the love of God, can we agree to stop ending articles with “the end”, or “end of story”, and variations thereof? It does not make your point. It is not a strong ending. Stop it.

  31. "music student" response March 1, 2011

    Kudos to you, you are by all means allowed to have an opinion.

    I commend you for somehow thinking that Music Theory and Saylor Classes are worth working your butt off for because you like “sounding good.”

    Pardon the rest of us–we desire our life’s work to have slightly more concrete meaning.

  32. music student March 11, 2011

    Maybe if Drake had a legitimate music program I would appreciate music more than the fact that it sounds good. Working my butt off in theory classes? Please, any other major universities with a music program goes through the 5 semesters that we had at Drake in a year.

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