Has anyone else heard the symphony of grumbles about our favourite artists 'getting political', lately?
Take Lizzo, for example. The Grammy award-winning singer didn't exactly mince her words in the lead-up to this year's presidential election. The 32-year-old artist actively campaigned for Joe Biden's now successful bid for office, interviewed Kamala Harris on Instagram Live and even used her acceptance speech at last month's Billboard Music Awards to talk about voter suppression. But many fans were put off, and said so, by Lizzo's dalliance with politics.
Meanwhile, last month's release of Demi Lovato's "Commander In Chief", an anthemic protest song directly addressing (now lame-duck) US President Donald Trump, sparked both fury and praise. It seems that whenever a musician takes an overtly political turn, especially when they're women, some miserable bastard always comes out of the woodwork to spit out the same tired refrain: "Wow, I usually love said artist, but stick to your day job! Hate it when entertainers get political!" And... scene.
Did I miss the Zoom meeting where all the artists agreed to keep quiet about their political opinions? To exist purely for entertainment, neatly cordoned off from the politics of the day? Musicians, actors, athletes, even scientists – whenever someone with a public profile has the audacity to engage with the world they're living in, they get stick. We're so desperate for this fantasy of an ideologically-pure, apolitical space that we're not willing to consider that actually? There isn't one.
For some artists, 'getting political' happens whether they like it or not. As Lizzo griped to David Letterman on the latest series of Netflix's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, her identity as a Black woman means that the label 'activist' (and the nature of that activism) was foisted on her from the beginning. "I'm sick of being an activist just because I'm fat and Black," she said. And a politicised body means politicised fashion statements. "Being a big, Black woman, wearing what I wore on stage was instantly political and it made a statement," the singer said in an episode of Vogue's 73 Questions. Demanding that a musician separates themselves from their politics; when their own bodies are made political just by their existence, is a pretty big ask.
It's not exactly new for artists to 'go political'. Music and politics in particular have long been intimately linked. From its very inception in the '80s, our very own MTV has acknowledged and cultivated that relationship. MTV's very first documentary Staying Alive, hosted by pop icon George Michael, ignited the Stayin' Alive campaign in 1998, which famously made incredible strides in countering HIV-related discrimination. By fighting stigma and encouraging positive conversations about HIV prevention, the campaign changed the course of history as we know it.
More recently, singer Keke Palmer opened this year's VMAs by acknowledging the political context that she had found herself in, throwing her support behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the health workers on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We can never tolerate police brutality or any injustice. We must continue the fight to end systemic racism," adding "we need to come together. And music. Music has that power".
Like all art, music is shaped by the context in which it's produced. As poet Claudia Rankine said on a New Yorker panel when asked about the impulse to produce 'political work' she said: "the idea that you can separate politics out from life is the first fiction," adding that "we are in the world, and make what we make from being present in the world". Her comments hark back to the words of legendary singer Nina Simone.
"An artist's duty as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times," Simone said in an interview back in the '60s. "I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved…. how can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist."
Nina Simone's incredulity that any artist could not reflect the times could explain why choosing not to be political, especially during times when lives are on the line, can itself be seen as politically charged. Singer Taylor Swift's radio silence around the election of the outwardly bigoted Donald Trump back in 2016 led some white supremacists to infer she secretly held white supremacist beliefs, with some even declaring her an "Aryan queen". (Yikes).
Taylor finally became vocal in her support for the US Democratic party a couple of years later, distancing herself from her adoption by the alt-right. The singer became even more politicised in 2020, pledging to "do everything [she] can" to unseat Donald Trump at the next election; criticising his response to this year's Black Lives Matter protests and accusing him of cheating in the run up to the election. It was clear, then, that when the stakes are high, even silence can be politically charged. There was no way for Taylor Swift to 'stay out of politics', even when she wanted to.
While musicians shouldn't have to shy away from politics, it is frightening to think that pop stars can wield enough power to change the outcome of an election. Given the massive fan power behind artists like BTS, Ariana Grande and yes, Taylor Swift, it makes sense to be wary of pop stars acting as stand-ins for politicians. But what doesn't make sense is to suggest they stay out of politics altogether. From Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin" to Paul Kelly's "From Little Things Big Things Grow", to Childish Bambino's "This Is America"… music and politics are inseparable bedfellows.
Our politics are emotive and personal; they speak to the very core of who we are. To try and separate music from politics is to separate music from its creators. It's a fantasy. And a weird one at that.
Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer at MTV Australia. Follow her at @purpletank.