On Sunday night, shortly after a series of musicians performed dramatic readings from Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley fired off this tweet:
“I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”
Let’s start here: I can understand why Haley would not be a big fan of Wolff’s look inside the first year of Trump’s White House. Not only does Wolff paint an extremely negative view of Trump and those around him, but he also seems to insinuate the possibility of an affair between Haley and the President.
“It is absolutely not true,” Haley told Politico last week of the rumor, adding: “It goes to a bigger issue that we need to always be conscious of. At every point in my life, I’ve noticed that if you speak your mind and you’re strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that.”
So Haley has a right to be annoyed.
But there’s a big difference between personal annoyance and suggesting that musicians keep politics out of their music.
This has, literally, never been the case. Musicians, like the rest of us, live in the world. They react to it. Their art grows from it. Whether that’s Bob Dylan writing about the civil rights movement or U2 shining a light on the fight against AIDS in Africa to Kesha giving voice to the #metoo movement, there’s a very long line of musicians writing about the politics of their lives and times.
That’s more true now than ever – thanks in no small part to Haley’s boss.
Trump’s candidacy – and his presidency – represent a historic crossing of the streams: A pop culture celebrity and television star who suddenly is also the President of the United States.
And, it’s not just that Trump, more so than any politician before him, reflects the increasingly nonexistent lines between pop culture, sports and politics. It’s that he views himself as a sort of cultural critic first and foremost. He comments on everything from Jay-Z to the NFL to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Trump sees no distinction between politics, sports, music, movies – so why should we?
Trump didn’t invent or create the notion that everything is politics and there’s politics in everything. We’ve been moving to the fusion of celebrity and politics (and culture) for a while now, with the Kardashian clan leading the charge.
But his election was a watershed moment in the erasing of all lines – a death of “stay in your lane” thinking. There are no lanes any more. Just people and their thoughts.
Which is, all in all, a good thing. The silo-ing of politicians or musicians or comedians was always dumb. A lawyer doesn’t only care about and think about law. She might also care about the NBA. Or commercial aviation. Or bowling. Or woodworking. Or, gasp, politics.
Haley’s tweet seems to pine for a time when people just stayed in their lanes. Play the songs and keep the politics out of it!, she is urging. But, if you just wanted music without real people – and their real thoughts and opinions – behind them, you could just listen to Muzak.
What draws people to music is the personal stories behind the music – the “why” of the lyrics. To ask musicians to be robots robs music of its real meaning.
Yes, the fact that musicians are people expressing their views can be uncomfortable. I have been at a show where a musician went off on a long rant about the media and how we were complicit in something or other. People cheered. I didn’t. But I didn’t think to myself: “Why can’t this guy just sing the songs?” Because that’s part of the deal you make when you listen to music: The artist gets to express himself or herself and you get to react to it. It is not the artist’s job to make sure that reaction is a pleasant one. In fact, it may be the artist’s job to make sure that reaction is unsettling – or at the least thought provoking.
That’s what Haley seemed to miss in her tweet. Being frustrated about a book is one thing. Urging musicians to take politics out of their music is another – and misses the point of music totally.