Friday, September 5, 2008

Music and Politics

Last night, The Cedar celebrated the first night of its 20th season. The Orange Mighty Trio and Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles provided musical entertainment, while local storyteller Kevin Kling kept the audience laughing between sets. Both of these musical groups have impressed me before, but Kevin Kling was a delightful surprise and is now a new favorite. Though I enjoyed Lucy’s quirky cuteness and the Orange Mighty Trio’s mix of jazz, classical and pop sensibilities as much as ever, I was struck by the sincerity of Kling’s stories. I could not my any means choose a favorite story. They were all tragically real and human and terribly funny. However, one thing he said stuck with me.

“I know there is something else going on in St. Paul tonight, but I think you all made a wise choice.”

He was, of course, referring to the Republican National Convention.

While his comment was met with a cascade of cheers and laughter, I couldn’t help but think there might be someone who felt alienated by that comment.

But really, that’s just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Performance art, particularly music, and politics have always had a tumultuous relationship. The ‘60s and ‘70s should be evidence enough, but there are many more recent examples too.

The Dixie Chicks’ comments on President George W. Bush while abroad, led to their being banned from certain U.S. radio stations and sworn off by many fans. The event also led to a documentary, and an album on which the Chicks defended their actions. This album, it so happens, was produced by our very own Dan Wilson (of Semisonic fame), and in my opinion is one of their best.

Another recent example would be the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Freedom of Speech Tour.” While the title of the tour should have tipped fans off, it clearly didn’t, as shown in the documentary “CSNY: Déjà vu.” The film has what seems like endless footage of disgruntled fans leaving concerts early, enraged that Neil Young would talk about politics. The general consensus seemed to be, “I came to hear their music, not their politics.”

All of this begs the question: Should musicians be allowed to voice their political opinions on stage?

Or should audience members expect to hear from their favorite performers as people as well as entertainers?

What about all these performances associated with the political conventions?

There are professions that encourage people not to discuss their political views like being in the navy or schoolteachers. But is that justification, or does that lead to more questions about freedom of speech?

It seems strange to expect performers to suspend their beliefs while they entertain us. But apparently, that is what many of us expect.

What do you think?

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