Oligarchy and Premature Dynamics in Songwriting

People say musicians don’t necessarily have much right to weigh in about politics, at least not just by virtue of being musicians. I beg the question to viva la differ!

I think, firstly: musicians are citizens, and as such have the same right as any other citizens to speak their mind. Ah—but, so goes the argument­—they are handed an extra “megaphone” by virtue of their artistic visibility and influence. They should be careful not to use that extra resonance to actually speak their minds, support and champion their beliefs and values. Say wha’?

The “Shut Up and Sing” humiliation of the Dixie Chicks during the run-up to the Iraq invasion was not just a public shaming of that band alone, but a new brand of intimidation tactics that had the likely desired effect of stifling much other dissent in the country—including, I’m not proud to say, my own efforts, as I’ve described in my memoirette “A Coward’s Confession.”

Meanwhile, today in other news—the Supreme Court continues to re-sew the tatters and shreds of our what was once presumed a democracy into the fool’s motley of a more baldly acknowledged oligarchy—control of the state by wealth. Limits on campaign contributions by individuals are challenged and weakened; limits on contributions by corporations are next in line. Public campaign finance seems a lost cause. The prospect of endless floods of money pouring into an already compromised system of governance seems inevitable, unstoppable.

First off, note the ironic juxtaposition of the points above. Those who gain influence through sheer financial power are left unimpeded. Those who gain influence by virtue of their own artistic abilities are prevented from doing so, not by rule of law but by unabashed thuggery and brutality. (Tactics protected in their own right, by the way, as “free speech.”)

That’s music in politics. How about politics in music?

There are certainly situations where musicians face our own “politics”—in our community at large, and within our own communities. The problem of instruments on planes is a good example. (See my Facebook post on this. Wait—where did it go?)

But beyond this, I think there are situations where musicians can bring particular insights to political questions: by dint of their insights into music itself as a form of knowledge, and a form of human interaction. After all, as Viktor Zuckerkandl, my favorite philosopher of music, said in Music and the External World, music is just as legitimate a source of fundamental insights about reality and how the world works as language, or science, or logic.

Allo me to demonstrate. Why is the influence of money in politics so pernicious? I compare it to the use of dynamics in songwriting. Say wha’?

I work a lot with younger songwriters on their songs. They live in a sonic world where performance and production are intimately interwoven with their experience of songs from the first listen. When they write, they tend to move very quickly to issues of performance and production. (Often they’re planning the music video from the very first chord. Not to mention the accompanying Twitter campaign.)

However, this early focus can actually work against your songwriting.

When you build dynamics into your performance of a song while you are still writing it, you are “selling” the song with that performance and energy. But the song itself might not yet be doing the work it’s supposed to do. Of course, ideas can come from any direction, and the process can be quite messy at any point in time. That’s okay: that’s songwriting. But at some point all those open threads must be gathered in order for the song to become truly composed—put together, polished.

If we compare these stages—generation, composition, arrangement, production, performance—to social action, we can see clear parallels. There is a legitimate marketplace of ideas where free speech really belongs. It is where we throw everything on the table. This is the generative stage: and the healthiest economy, whether of dollars or ideas, is one where this stage is as rich and fecund as possible. It is the soil out of which firm and well-measured ideas and policies grow. These days, the Internet has helped this roiling-ferment stage of things through the wide accessibility of means of expression and dissemination.

But then it comes time to “compose ourselves”—sift and sort through these many ideas, and decide what is to be done. Also true of both songwriting and political life.

We’ve created a political system that arranges for that decision-making to happen a certain way. We have a representative democracy: first we pick people to represent our interests; then those people legislate laws and policies. If we like what they do, we try to re-elect them; if we don’t, we don’t.

When money drives both those processes—elections and legislation—it’s exactly like a songwriter trying to write a song by power-singing the chorus as loud as he can, to convince himself and us that it’s a great chorus. A piss-poor chorus sung loudly does not become a good chorus; it’s still a piss-poor chorus, but now we’re listening to it with a headache to boot.

A representative democracy is how we have chosen to compose ourselves politically.

Keeping money out of politics is how we get the composition right.

There is a legitimate place for money later in the political system, though: and that should be in execution.

For example: Congress decides there should be legislation to help musicians carry instruments on to planes. They tell the FAA to draft such legislation. But the FAA has limited funds, and makes its own decisions about the priority of that legislation. Congress is notoriously bad at issuing these “unfunded initiatives.” And so—guess what? The passed legislation somehow never gets done.

Suppose I’m a wealthy musician, and I want to influence politics, but in a way that does not circumvent the will of the people. The people have spoken, once Congress has said: “There should be such legislation…” I see no harm at that point in letting citizens contribute their own money toward the implementation of that program.

In other words, everyone should pay their taxes; but we could have a certain degree of control over dispensation of the taxes we contribute. Maybe not complete control, since we still need to pave roads and buy donuts for Congressional pages. But a certain degree of control.

Oh, and there is my Facebook comment after all. Turned into a blog post, where of course it will live forever.



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