On Political Songwriting
So there’s a compilation that I was asked to donate a track to, and I’ve written a politically-oriented song for it. Not intentionally – it just sort of what was came out. Political songwriting is something I do think about from time to time. I’d suggest that there’s actually a pretty significant absence of it lately. Something you should probably be a little disturbed about – especially since there’s such a glut of musicians putting out music at such a rapid clip. There will of course be plenty of musicians ready to get on board for a fundraiser show. (I don’t really know how I feel about those – just being honest – the perverse incentive of opportunism always makes me leery). In any case, maybe the problem is two-fold: (1) that the glut of music in recent years didn’t actually bring with it an elevation in the quality of songwriting, and (2) political songwriting is actually really difficult to pull off.
And it is difficult to pull off. It’s the reason I don’t do it very much – or when I do political songwriting, I do it in a way that is rather opaque and indirect. (For instance, did you know that “To Be Young Again” is ultimately about protest, and the Occupy Wall Street movement?). The problem with political songwriting is that it has at least three aims – to be artistic, to be entertaining, and to communicate a message. If it’s not artistic, it won’t actually be moving in the right way. If it’s not entertaining, nobody will listen to it in the first place. And if it doesn’t communicate a message, it won’t actually be political.
Most of the political songwriting I’ve been acquainted with has been gay songwriting – which tends to be too preachy and obvious to be worth taking seriously. There was that insufferable Macklemore song, for instance, with its equally insufferable piano hook at the beginning – screaming “please call me a classic!” In fact, most political songwriting is bad in the way that Christian rock is bad. Christian rock is preachy and obvious, and so it’s not really moving in the right way. Christian rock is what Christian high school students created when they realized that they were labelled social outcasts by their friends, who were themselves into rock music. Christian rock resulted by combining regular rock rather matter-of-factly with proselytizing. I think the theory was that young high schoolers would get “tricked” into liking music that sounded like rock music, and then be “tricked” again by the message into believing in God. (This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been successful Christian rock, I’m just talking about as a rule.) Inartful to say the least. But then again, that’s what a lot of political music is. It’s inartful. And it’s inartful because it’s proselytizing set to music.
The problem here is that proselytizing is already a pretty bad way to convert. As if someone were to come up to me and say “Vote for Rubio” – and because they said that, I would just straightaway go ahead and do that. People don’t act directly on command – merely receiving a command does not thereby motivate someone to act accordingly. That’s a simplistic way of thinking about motivation. Now, if the political songwriter’s theory is that command + pleasant music = motivation, well, that’s a slightly better theory. But it’s also still pretty far off the mark. Music can motivate, but music doesn’t translate into motivation to do the thing commanded merely by contemporaneity of the music with the command.
I think maybe the ultimate goal is to write the song in such a way that highlights a morally salient feature of the political position at issue – and then write music that emotionally expresses the natural response to that feature. The idea is that you have to identify the motivating feature of your cause. Songwriting is an act of directing someone’s attention to a feature of the world that is itself already motivating – and then providing music that supports or expresses the natural emotional response to that feature of the world. At least that’s the theory I’m going with for now. The act of baptism is, perhaps, closer to the mark than Christian rock. It’s a tactile experience, is viscerally associated with the idea of cleansing and forgiveness. You can see why the act of baptism can be moving in a way that pure proselytizing is not. If you wanted a better analogy for political songwriting – go with baptism and not proselytizing.
Of course, everything that I’ve said before has been based on the assumption that political songwriting is proselytizing. In fact, a lot of political songwriting isn’t proselytizing – a form of conversion – but a form of riling up true believers. Maybe political songwriting is like gospel music then. I’d still suggest that “commands set to music” is probably not the way to go. The goal is to highlight the relevant motivating features of the world, and then providing music that supports or expresses the natural emotional response.
Does the song I’ve written reach that acme of political songwriting? I’m guessing probably not. But we’ll see what happens when it comes out.