Friday, July 16, 2010

Article: When Politics and Art Collide

There is a website called and it lists, among other things, the top 25 liberal musicians. Sadly for me, my favorite band, REM, is there along with other bands I enjoy. I've been thinking about this conundrum for some time -- what if your political beliefs are radically different from your favorite artist? Do you reject them or just agree to disagree? Do you support them with your dollars -- buying their CDs, going to their concerts, seeing their movies, watching their TV shows? Am I a hypocrite if I do, or am I acknowledging that disagreements do not have to break down all bonds?

This is an issue I've struggled with, being a Republican who leans towards liberal artists. My favorite TV show was MASH, for heaven's sake, one of the most politically left-leaning shows ever.  I had originally considered naming this blog after one of REM's song lyrics, instead it's named after a play by Lanford Wilson, who, based on his writings, I can only assume would disagree with me about most issues. It's confounding for me that the artists with whom I connect on one level, I am at odds with on so many others. 

So what to do? In the past twenty-five years I've gone to too many REM concerts to count and have had to put up with anti-Bush Sr., pro-Clinton, pro-Gore, pro-Kerry, and rampant anti-Bush Jr. orations in the middle of most of them. I've sang along to Ignoreland, realizing it was an attack on the Reagan and Bush administrations. I've listened to Michael Stipe lambaste the Republican nominees for president for over a quarter of a century, even two years ago threatening to leave the country if McCain won.

I'm sure over the decades, some percentage of all the money I've spent on REM has gone to support some candidate I oppose or some cause I don't believe in. I've indirectly furthered the Democratic agenda by supporting one of their most staunch allies, one of their most fervent banner-carriers. Yet boycotting them because of differences of political opinion seems un-American to me. They have a right to their wrong opinion and they have a right to express it.

It is a two-way street -- they have a right to speak, and we have a right to respond. But what shape should that response take?  While I have the choice whether or not to support them by buying their music or attending their concerts, I don't believe that I am necessarily obligated to make my decision solely based on politics.  In some cases, I can enjoy and appreciate the messenger and not the message.  I can embrace the artist detached from their extra-curricular activities.

On the flipside, I've wondered, would these artists be shocked, horrified or just bemused to discover that some of their fans may be -- gasp -- Republicans?  Conservatives, even?

I was actually heartened to see Stipe say that there was no inconsistency in his mind behind a "right-winger" liking the music of a liberal group, addressing the rumor that Tory leader David Cameron and former Bush ally Tony Blair were fans of REM. He dismissed as silly the idea that a liberal artist should be displeased to discover they had conservative fans.  I was glad to hear that.

But others realize that with taking a political stand comes a risk and may not be able to be separated by their fans. Death Cab for Cutie's frontman Benjamin Gibbard told back in 2004, "I think art and politics are directly related to each other, and people that deny the cross-influence are kidding themselves. So I can understand why people tend to be annoyed by people like ourselves getting up and taking a political stand."

Similarly, REM's Mike Mills said during the pro-Kerry 2004 Vote for Change tour, "We may alienate some fans over this. I don't like that - I prefer to have music stand apart from political feelings. But this is so important, it's worth it. If I piss a few people off, good."

Now, I was surprised to see liberal artists worry about taking liberal positions. To my knowledge, the only recent artists who risked anything by their liberal stance were the Dixie Chicks and that was because country music is thought to be more of a Red State thing. Usually, being a liberal artist is redundant and not likely to inflame any negative passions.

So where does that leave the conflicted fan? In my case, REM's music means more to me than anything this side of the original liberal-musician, John Lennon. So do I sacrifice my love of their songs, or Lennon's, because of jarring political disagreements? How far would they have to go for their politicizing to outweigh their music? I'm not sure, but I know they haven't gone too far yet to turn me away.

The one example of an artist that did go too far was one of the members of System of a Down, whose anti-semitic, anti-Israel spewings at a 2005 concert were so hate-filled I could not separate the message from the messenger.  The concert T-shirt was tossed in the trash can, the CDs never listened to again, the songs switched off from the car stereo.  To me there is a bright line. I can support artists with whom I disagree about issues, but not those who come from a place of hatred.

"Take away their money and you take away their power" is the motto of the website, and I know that there is some truth to that.  I do worry about financially supporting those who want to take the country in a direction I'm opposed to. And I worry about giving too much power and voice to those who argue against what I believe to be best for the country. But, I respect their right to express themselves and wouldn't want to live in a country where that right would be denied.

By the same token, it is sad that Republicans in Hollywood -- yes there are some, they just for the most part, keep a really low profile -- fear retribution were they to come out of their political closet. 

Philosophically, extremist liberals are my political enemies and, to them, I'm the enemy as well. But isn't it a part of the Christian belief system to love your enemy?  Even though I'm not a Christian, it's something I've been willing to do -- at least when it comes to artists I love.


  1. I am a Democrat, so I won't be reading your blog

  2. I guess I had that coming!! Very funny.

  3. Well Shari, I'm a politica liberal and a practicing Christian and I have similar debates daily. I think we all have similar debates in our daily lives, on a much smaller scale. I can think of a number of local businesses I do business with -- a local plant nursery, my lawn mower repair shop, my car mechanic -- who I know don't vote the way I do. And, I've wondered if I'm putting money in the "enemy's" pocket. But, ultimately I believe in the power of humanity. That despite our political or religious views, most of us are here to do good and contribute in some way -- even though I might disagree with you. And, as a Christian, my conception of God is that he was not a Republican or Democrat -- those are "human made" constructs that have no real meaning on a higher level. So, as long as someone is not doing harm or being destructive (and I believe censorship is more destructive than most speech) that we should all be able to live under the same tent in peace. And, if all else fails, we can always change the subject from politics to why Casey James' guitar playing is so smoking hot:-) And that, my friend, is a fundamental truth upon which Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree.

    P.S. And I actually like some Republicans... including David Brooks!

  4. And, I should add -- since this topic is political -- that I think politics have become way too divisive, partisan, and uncivilized. Art is a way for us to understand our common humanity and bring us together. Also, I think too much emphasis is placed sometimes on values that divide us, rather than the values we share. I sometimes tire of making bedfellows of politics and music -- even when I agree with the views of the artist. I kind of feel like we get enough of it on the 24/7/365 news cycle and I come to hear a performance, not a political speech.

  5. Wow, you are brave! In many professions now it's more damaging to be a Republican than it was to be communist in the 1950's. I know people who must conceal their beliefs or they would not have a career.

    One of the differences between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives think government should be a smaller part of life than liberals do. (So conservatives are less likely to think a government career is a great thing to do with one's life.) Especially, conservatives traditionally have thought politics should not dominate every aspect of life. That's how I've thought of things for years.

    But now it seems to me that things are different. Sweeping changes are talking place that many of us think are very bad for the country. In theory I still want to approach art neutrally, but I find I just don't want to see a movie that has Sean Penn in it. If actors make themselves spokesmen for Hugo Chavez, there are consequences.

    Music is a little different; can be better, can be worse. Even conductors of classical orchestras enliven their concerts by trashing those not on the same side. If musicians want to insult part of their audience, it's hard to ignore that.
    But I would like to think that music brings people together. People of all different ages and circumstances can like the same music. I really wish musicians and other artists would keep their politics to themselves. It's a kind of arrogance, really, for an artist to act as if his or her opinion should carry any special weight.

  6. Mah Momma dun tol' me...when ah wuz in pigtails...ya never discuss religion or politics at the dinner!

    I EXPECT most musical artists to have liberal leanings, especially the younger ones. I RESPECT those who do not inject their political beliefs into their art...when I go to a concert, or watch a favorite performer on TV, it's for entertainment, not enlightenment. I certainly don't care to hear the politicians I admire break out into song at a rally or a town meeting or a convention...why should I be expected to endure the musicians I admire airing their views at a concert or an awards show? SHUT UP and SING is my motto. If musicians wanna pontificate, they should run for office...or should I say join the priesthood??? Ha Ha. :D

  7. You are brave, and not because you admit you are a republican (I am a conservative and there are many more of us in this country than many think!) but because you bring it up at all on this side of your two blogs!
    I like to keep politics and entertainment separate and I prefer entertainers that do the same. Some entertainers seem to think their opinion should trump mine simply because they are famous. Not so! However, I TRY not to let it influence what I watch/listen to. When an entertainer takes it too far, I don't consciously steer clear of their work/music but find myself passing on their movies, etc. sometimes by instinct.
    I wish they would give their political speeches and comments at a political rally and leave it out of their professional work!
    That being said, I am a Christian and I do love my fellow man regardless of what they think or say or do. It is not for me to judge!
    I must add, that Casey James' good-heartedness and belief in morals do endear him to me even more! drtolm

  8. @Karen Barth, I couldn't have said it better myself: "I really wish musicians and other artists would keep their politics to themselves."

  9. Wow. That website is really disturbing. Never understood why Conservatism and Christianity need to go hand and hand. There is so much anti-Christian sentiments coming for the far right these days it sickens me.

    But I digress. I say if you want to cut yourself off from the potential of hearing and seeing great art in the name of saving the country, then go for it. Let's ponder for a second if those efforts were successful. We'd have artists not being able to make a living unless their politics fit in with a conservative agenda. Imagine how culturally devoid music and art would be. There would be no Lennon, no Dylan, no Springsteen and certainly no REM. (Michael Stipe is gay and a liberal. Da Horror.) Because the conservatives aren't stopping at boycotting. There would be more up their sleeves, and that would be to completely silence liberals. The agenda of that site does not come for a place of acceptance, so to accept their agenda means accepting that reality.

    Of course REM doesn't mind having conservative fans -- because the hope is to open their minds to a different point of view. Maybe something alternative than what they are hearing in their church and at the family dinner table. 60s music was about opening people's eyes to what was going on. REM is in that same vein. Not saying they are successful in converting anyone, but that's not the entire point. I

    In the 60s, politics were absolutely part of art, why would it be any different now? The best musicians are often surveyors of current times the good, the bad, all sides of it.

    For me, if I found out a favorite musician was a staunch conservative, I would ponder how much remaining a fan means to me. I am offended by much of what conservatives are saying today because they just don't seem to come from a place of love and acceptance. I could not be at a concert where the performer is using some of the quasi-racist, anti-gay -- anti everything talk. It's not the idealologies, its how they often manifest themselves when people get on a soapbox. As far as your blog, I have enjoyed your writing, but have to ponder if it is worth supporting someone who entertains the notion of boycotting musicians who have different politics. That goes beyond being a conservative

  10. Thanks for mentioning the Dixie Chicks and reminding me that not all southern, country music performers are conservatives. If Casey James is a republican, I could live with that. If he joined the tea party, then I would do my darndest to erase the fact I was ever a fan. A

    Right on Death Cab for Cutie. I do think art and politics influence and inform each other. IF you are a true artist, your experiences, beliefs, morals are a part of your work. Some artists are activists at heart, most are very passionate people. You put those two together and it's bound to manifest itself. Musicians and actors just happen to have a larger platform and permission to say what they want to say "on the job". But there is plenty of neutrality to enjoy when it comes to music. Just not going to come from bands like REM

  11. Anonymous at 4:35,

    You seem to have misread my post or misunderstood my message. I do not support any more than I support the tacit boycott conservative movement in Hollywood. I wrote the post to discuss the ideas and motivations behind that organization, to have an open dialogue on the issue. It seems hypocritical to say you are against boycotting but will boycott me for even questioning whether I'm a hypocrite for loving REM or Death Cab when they are politically at odds with me on most -- but by no means all -- issues.

    The next poster says they would stop supporting Casey James if he were a tea party member -- so who's in favor of boycotts? Certainly not me.

  12. I consider myself a moderate Democrat, with leanings towards the liberal side of life. My two brothers, both of whom I love and respect greatly, are very strong Republicans. I would never, under any circumstances, demand that they change their points of view in order for me to continue having a loving relationship with them.

    The beauty of our society blooms most fully when people with different points of view can come together and debate and disagree, but still respect each other. I fully expect people to respect my point of view, so I do my best to respect theirs.

    If a musician makes music that I love, I will buy it, period end of story. If a musician is a Conservative, my refusal to buy his music will not change his point of view. And I will respect his right to his own political beliefs and affiliation, just as I would expect him to respect mine.

    In a nutshell . . . Casey has my permission to be a Republican if he wants to. I'm nice like that.

  13. Hey, Jesus was a Liberal. ;) Seriously, I'm an unapologetic Liberal and raised in a family of progressive Christians and I am often disheartened by how His word has been distorted to justify some very unChristian sentiments and behaviors (selfishness, condemnation, etc.). But I also have some family members and friends who are Republicans and truly compassionate Conservatives who do a great deal of good and I love them. We have heated arguments sometimes but it doesn't change how I feel about them as people. It's the bloated, hot-air-puffed-up pundit class that make political dialog so toxic... that goes for for Keith Olberman as well as Glenn Beck.

    As for artists who get political in their concerts... ugh. I love Bruce Springsteen and even agree with his politics mostly, but the one and only time I got to see him in concert he spent half of the concert opining rather than making music. If it's a political or charitable fundraiser, that goes with the territory but for a regular concert and $125 crappy seats I expected to hear Bruce and the band singing and playing and frankly it was a very disappointing experience. I'd feel the same about a conservative musician who did that.

    I'll admit that celebrities who support organizations that want to interfere with others' rights (i.e., women's right to choose) would upset me. If they gave money to those organizations, I might have room for pause but if it's just a matter of how someone feels about a particular issue, I can deal. I'm all for freedom and Freedom which means the right to have disagreements without seeing someone else as the enemy. I'm not going to boycott someone's art or music if it moves me, just because I disagree with them.

  14. First, being a Republican does not mean being racist or homophobic -- at least not in my case. Second, as I said in my blog post: "boycotting them because of differences of political opinion seems un-American to me. They have a right to their wrong opinion and they have a right to express it."

  15. p.s. to my previous anonymous post (at 6:03 PM): I would put your question in a broader societal context. I hate Wall Street. I hate the whole culture, the entitlement, the greed... And yet I have investments in stocks and bonds some of which are managed by Wall Street firms, and for companies who support politicians that craft policy that I find harmful or offensive. I have credit cards and bank accounts with some of the worst of the banksters. So, should I boycott them and stuff my retirement money under the mattress? Do I try to invest in only companies whose politics I agree with (are there any?)? I suppose I could close my bank accounts and join a credit union, but there is really no way to extricate my retirement funds from the big bad street. I've got to live in the real world which means trying to do the best I can and do the least harm to others while living with the system we have. Does that mean I'm a hypocrite? I don't think so.

    Likewise, I don't think it's hypocritical to like an artist - and buy their art/music/whatever whose personal politics are not like-minded if their art inspires in some way.


  16. @burnthis. From your clarifition, it seems I misinterpreted your post. You started off by saying how saddened you are that your favorite artists are on that site. I took that to mean that you are sad you might have to consider a boycott, even though you had supported REM for years. Your worries and thoughts read to me like you were on the fence about it because of this website, because that is how you started the blog post. on the one hand I feel this way, but on the other hand I feel this way. And there is nothing wrong with that, but to me it did not sound like a definitive opinion My mistake then.

    "I do worry about financially supporting those who want to take the country in a direction I'm opposed to. And I worry about giving too much power and voice to those who argue against what I believe to be best for the country."

    This passage is what confused me. You did end it by saying that you respect their right to voice your opinion. But boycotting doesn't take away that right, it just says you are not supporting it. You can say "I respect your opinion, but I am not paying money to help your agenda." Again, just the way I interpreted it.

  17. @MaryS It's not Wall Street that is evil. It's the people who run it, who saw dollar signs in things caused in part by deregulation. Boycotting is not the most effective way to get rid of those people -- you just give them less opportunity to exploit and feed their greed. This is where legislation comes in, supporting candidates that the evil liberal musicians like. You can also choose mutual funds that support certain social causes.

  18. Thanks for re-reading and commenting again!! I do not condone that website at all, but as a Republican I do have to face the fact that the artists I love probably don't see eye to eye with me on the economy or foreign policy (I'm a social moderate -- pro gay marriage, pro choice, etc.). It's just something I think about -- but I wouldn't turn my back on an artist because we disagree.

  19. My thoughts on the previous posts:
    1. I too have struggled with the dilemma of supporting an artist (musician/actor/whatever)with whom I have significant political/moral/religious disagreements. Enjoying their artististic "output" unfortunately equates to giving them your money. Your money equates to your life ... that is, you spent moments, days, years of your life to earn it....when you pass it on/spend it you are passing on your life. Money has and is power...if you doubt it try living without it.
    2. I believe an artist needs to separate his/her personal views from their performance/output (writers are exempt from this by the nature of their art). As previously stated, I attend a concert, movie, play for entertainment, enjoyment, and/or personal edification. By doing so it is not my intent to make myself an essentially captive audience for whatever the artists want to say about any ole' thing. As a previous poster noted, it is especially galling to have to PAY to be lectured to.
    3. Unfortunately, fame causes major "head-swelling" on a number of levels. Too many performers seem to think fame equals wisdom/intelligence. Too many of them are not nearly as smart as they think they are. Being famous does not mean they do not have a right to an opinion or the freedom to express it. However, fame does not give them the right to force it down others throats in inappropriate ways. As someone mentioned, if they feel the need to be politically active they can do it thru participation in political rallies, fundraising, etc. But SHOULD NOT use their notoriety as an artist as a platform to push their personal beliefs.
    4. I can honestly say my opinions/beliefs have NEVER been swayed affirmatively by any artist's opinions. BUT my opinion of an artist has been negatively impacted by their insistence on telling the world their opinions.
    5. Bottom's kindergarten stuff. We should all try our best to respect each other and get along. Fame is neither an exemption from this basic tenet nor a license to be pushy a**holes. Artists want/need an audience. They should show their audience basic respect as well.
    6. RE: conservative vs liberal, Republican vs Democrat, right-wing vs left-wing etc. etc. I guess I would say I am a liberal conservative feminist (can there be such a thing or am I an oxymoron? LOL) who votes the issues not the party. That being said, it is my observation that those who support "liberal" agendas tend to act as those they are perfectly free to say ANYTHING against a conservative agenda, but, if a conservative responds in kind they are accused of bigotry and other heinous crimes. "Public" discourse is totally out of hand and is being driven by the talking heads on the "news" networks who have to fill their 24 hour cycles with something while also fighting for ratings. Thus, things get more and more outrageous (as noted in re Olberman and Beck).
    7. Wow, this obviously hit a nerve! Thanks for letting me vent :)

  20. Wow, such interesting, diverse and thoughtful posts here! Obviously Shari has raised a fascinating and relevant question. For many of the less aware, it would never even occur to them to consider an artist's policitcal/social leanings or context. The fact that all of you here do makes me happy, because it means you're THINKING, which is always a positive thing (even if sometimes the thoughts make my prog-left brain scream!) Taking a thoughtful stand is laudable; taking a mindless stand, less so. Taking no stand maybe even worse. I suppose there's a line for everyone when it comes to art--I personally couldn't feel as enthusasitic about a writer or performer who was directly at odds with my core beliefs, for example one that was homophobic or rascist. I give them a pass for political opinions, however. Nevertheless, the relationship between an artist and their audience is at the heart of the experience, and becomes the most profound when it resonates in perfect harmony.

    Therefore, though it is ironic that Shari's childhood hero was a working class lad by the name of John, and her fave band REM prominently left-wing, it might MIGHT be indicative of her own values. Might she not be quite as conservative as she wants to think she is? Follow me here...Are those who vote GOP based on free-market capitalist fundamentals rather than the "moral" flashpoints that seem to have taken over the party--are they really a 2010 Republican? I think of the Maine gals, Specter, and the vanishing breed of "true" conservatives that once formed the core of the GOP--like Shari, how comfortable are they feeling right now? (Well Specter as much demonstrated this fact by his actions.) Will Independents become the New (or really--the old as in Classic) Republicn party? OK a little off topic but here's the segueway: Shari likes liberal artists; she votes conservative. Is that a conflict of interest? Perhaps it's better we make our political statements with how we spend our money (yup, love those boycotts!) and how we cast our votes rather than who we listen to on the radio. In other words, sit back and enjoy the music.

  21. @CJFan_Audrey (Twitter)July 16, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    Thanks for your thought provoking entry Shari! At the end of the day, when I listen to music I don't want to take it so seriously. I want to listen to the lyrics and the melody and if it moves me, I like it. I don't want to be concerned by the artist's political views. Without thinking too much about it, when I listen to a song/artist, I know instinctively if it moves me or not. If it does, then I will seek out more of his/her music, simple as that. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. In this day and age, we should all learn to accept each other's differences and agree to disagree. If anything, listening to an artist who has different political views as you may open your heart and mind to ways of thinking you wouldn't have been open to otherwise. Isn't that a good thing?

  22. Sandi,

    Thanks! You definitely helped put this in perspective. For me, there is a difference between me differing with someone's politics and me finding someone's political position to be so indefensible that I cannot support them. The only performer in the latter group is one of the members of System of a Down who is so rampantly anti-Semitic that I stopped listening to their music. It's also interesting to contemplate that I may be more liberal than I admit to. Hmmmm.

  23. Audrey,

    Glad you enjoyed the discussion and liked the idea of music as a bridge to bring people of disparate views together. Casey James has done that for me musically, getting me to listen to country and blues, and others do it politically.

  24. boycotting an artist only based on her/his political opinion is futile because everybody deserve to have their own opinion. BUT if that artist/band uses "political reasons" to cancel a concert just before it is due, is crossing a red line for me. canceling a concert for whatever reason after tickets go on sale show disrespect to their audience and it doesnt matter where or why and an artist who dare to disrespect their audience because of political reasons dont deserve my support.