All art is political. For some readers, this is elementary. But I’ve encountered several friends and acquaintances over the years who simply reject this premise and any kind of aesthetic consequences it might have. For example: last year I TAed for an intro to composition class at my undergrad, and one day the subject of music and politics came up. I brought up my belief that all art is political, and one student questioned that: Surely there’s music that doesn’t mean anything the way a national anthem or protest song means something. He brought up piano as an example; surely you can write a piece for piano that is only concerned with aesthetics and not politics. I responded that the choice of piano as an instrument has tremendous political implications, but we ran out of time and I could not elaborate.
I was thinking about this conversation today because I was listening to DARE, by the Gorillaz. It is a pet peeve of mine when people equate politics in music simply to textual content; if you think that the only thing making a national anthem political is its lyrics than you are profoundly missing the point. (Choral composers, take note!). DARE, through such a lens, might come across as rather apolitical. The lyrics are more or less nonsensical: “it’s coming up” refers to a volume check in the studio as Gorillaz were recording, and “it’s dare” came from vocalist Shaun Ryder mispronouncing “it’s there”. So textually, sure, DARE doesn’t convey any political meaning. It doesn’t really convey anything at all, to be honest; like that student’s example, the lyrics, and the rest of the song, are aesthetically pleasing and it doesn’t have an agenda except to sound good.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t political meaning in the work! And the work that I did looking into the context for DARE is the work I wish that student would do now to consider what it means for an artistic choice to have political meaning, intended or not. It doesn’t take much research most of the time; I was able to learn the following from Wikipedia in about 10 minutes:
- Shaun Ryder has a Manchester accent, and it’s on full display in his performance in DARE. The title and it mispronunciation are a direct result of his accent.
- The Mancunian Accent, like most accents in the UK, has a profound class character. Wikipedia cites a study that shows public perception of the Mancunian accent as being “‘diverse’, ‘rough’, [and] ‘common'”.
- This class character can be traced to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which saw a surge of immigration of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish, laborers, as well as immigrants from much of Central and Eastern Europe (including a sizeable Jewish population). The Mancunian accent can be traced pretty directly to this cultural and linguistic mixing.
- The immigration policy of Britain during that time was relatively loose; politics and policy directly facilitated the demographic reality that catalyzed the Mancunian accent.
- As part of the Madchester movement of the 1980s, Shaun Ryder himself had no small influence on the Mancunian accent and its cultural identity. Madchester, in turn, was influenced by a drug culture which was certainly influenced by changes in UK drug policy in the 60s and 70s. Ryder himself was a heroin addict.
So with very limited research, we can see how DARE reflects at least two different specific policies from different time periods of Britain. The identity of Shaun Ryder was shaped by the political climate and history of Manchester, and that identity as an artist and English speaker literally changed the sonic content of DARE as Gorillaz and Ryder navigated their collaboration. The music doesn’t have an overt political message, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore politics! The music is not politically neutral, even when the music is a song about something as inconsequential (politically speaking) as adjusting volume in a studio.
Your homework is to figure out the political context and consequences of writing for piano! I can think of at least three off the top of my head, without any research.