Op-Ed: The politics of punk, voting and social responsibility in music - Features - Alternative Press

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Op-Ed: The politics of punk, voting and social responsibility in music

February 13 2017, 12:39 PM EST By Natasha Van Duser


November 8, 2016 has gone down as one of the most controversial days in recent history—it is the day that determined Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

The 2016 election marked the second opportunity I had to vote for a president. I grew up during the Bush administration, listening to the Rock The Vote campaign and Rock Against Bush records (thanks Fat Mike!), so by 2012 I was adamant to give my support to Obama, with full “I’m finally over 18” pride. However, four years later, I wasn’t anywhere near eager to set foot in a polling booth. Uninspired by either candidate, I chose to withhold my ballot, an act that seemed more condemning than voting for the big T himself.

Two weeks later, I interviewed guitarist Tom Williams of Stray From The Path and vocalist Jesse Barnett of Stick To Your Guns—two active voices in heavily charged political bands who also opted against the vote. Their decisions to boycott the election both shocked and relieved me. Why would two members of bands so fixated on social change also choose to withhold their votes on Election Day ?

To understand the fluctuating role of the political voice in music, I sought out interviews with several outspoken band members in our scene. Reaching back out to Barnett and Williams, I brought vocalists Jason Butler of letlive. and Cole Becker of SWMRS into the conversation.

While Williams didn’t actively participate in the vote, Stray From The Path were very open about their beliefs on the entire situation. “A lot of people were talking about how much of a piece of shit Donald Trump was, but to me personally, I thought Hillary [Clinton] was the scarier person,” explains Williams, whose band released a contentious music video on Election Day for the track “The House Always Wins.” Sampling actual statements from both candidates, the video features a nuclear family plagued by caricatures of Clinton and Trump alongside a chorus yelling, “Break, motherfucker! We’re all fucked no matter who we choose.” Within 48 hours, the video became one of SFTP’s most shared releases, as well as one of the only videos to depict issues with both potential president elects.

“As an artist, you are obligated to be a ‘role model’ for the kid that is watching you,” Williams goes on to say. “Not only do I want people to be informed about certain things in the world, but even if it opens up a conversation to prove me wrong or find other alternative ways to think of that thing, then that’s a big deal. I need to be writing music that pushes an envelope, because I have to think about it in deeper context of how it’s going to affect people.”

2016 stirred up excessive societal turmoil through racism, sexism, gender laws, gun violence, police brutality—you name it. But unlike 2004, the music community seemed far from unified in their openness about a solution. While many artists, such as Frank Ocean and Beyoncé, were rather forthright on certain issues, there was still a significant decline in the overall role of mainstream music in the wake of these national uproars. “The House Always Wins” was a solid response to the administrative situation, but it was nowhere near as big as Eminem’s “White America” and Green Day’s “Holiday” back in the day. Instead, carefree, party-centric tracks like Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and the Weeknd’s “Starboy” dominated radio waves. There was no formal movement in music to “rock the vote,” even though 12 years later, the technological platforms presented to the public have vastly increased in accessibility and usage.

“As far as Top 40 [goes], I have a hard time with it,” says Barnett. “These people have a platform. But when it comes to saying something real that can divide their fanbases, of course they won’t say something like that.” Walking the middle ground becomes treacherous territory because publicly it’s a safe zone, but many still regard third party voting or a lack thereof as a shot against the success of the right or left. “People shouldn’t be pressured into voting a certain way,” explains Becker, who at age 21 just had his first opportunity to partake in a presidential election. “I think the fact that you’re supposed to associate with 50 percent of the people in your country is ridiculous, especially as artists and kind of outcast people.”

Encouraging citizens to vote stems from the idea that their voices are being heard—even the average Joe or Jane gets their say, in theory. “We’re not a true democracy. We’re a representative democracy and that’s the first problem,” Butler points out. “We’ve got the Electoral College representing each state, and we have a certain amount of votes to each state due to the populace and ratio of each state to country and it’s just antiquated. It’s archaic. And the fact that the popular vote, which is the majority of citizens in your country, can say one thing yet an antiquated—and quite broken—system like the Electoral College can choose otherwise, and that’s what it is, I do find that to be frustrating, not only for the people that didn’t vote, but also for myself.”

Is a track that focuses on being “bad and boujee” more or less relevant than one directly tackling the state of socio-economic affairs? Or have we finally dwindled to a nation looking to block out the problems in front of us rather than face them head on? One of the possibilities as to why a massive media surge in the Rock The Vote campaign didn’t occur this time might be because there was a divide about whether one should vote at all. This riff can be seen here, as both Becker and Butler voted while Williams and Barnett did not.

“I love Bernie [Sanders], and I’ve donated to him,” Williams explains, “but I won’t vote because when I vote [in any election], it sends a message that I am okay with the voting system, and that’s not something that I’m willing to do.” A few days prior, Barnett had answered similarly: “I did not [vote] and that was a deliberate choice. To me, that was a vote.”

“We just want to start a dialogue with people and maybe educate some people,” Williams says on behalf of his band. “Hopefully, people can look at something like ‘The House Always Wins’ and think, ‘Okay, maybe, I don’t have to take part in this.’”

The origins of punk and hardcore go hand in hand with outcries of repressed people and social injustice. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys (whose name alone is political), Bad Brains and Minor Threat took politics by the horns and inspired modern politi-punk groups such as Anti-Flag, Against Me! and Green Day. Music went through a political golden age in the ’90s and early 2000s where one could hear activist tracks blaring on mainstream radio. But with the overall decline of juggernauts like Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down in lieu of the mass pop-driven uprising, there has to be a new logical outlet for the activist voice.

“[I am] careful to say whether I or any other artist hold a sort of obligation,” notes Butler, “but I personally feel if you have an inclination or you feel a desire to think alternatively or be subversive, one of the best platforms that has ever existed is music, is art; it’s always precipitated every single renaissance you’ve ever seen: political, romantic, intellectual. All these different renaissances started with art.”

“When you see people like Chainsmokers, who instead of talking about important things, they’re talking about their dick size on their fucking website. It’s just stupid,” says Becker. “That’s why I think it’s important for the underground to rise up and offer people something more real that they can use to escape with, but also let people know that they’re not the only ones feeling the way that they do.” While Becker sees a social and health benefit to music as an escape, he, too believes the platform musicians are given cannot be ignored. “There’s actually a really good quote from this dude John Berger, who is kind of a godfather of media studies, who said one time [paraphrasing] that all art is inherently, deeply political, and I think what he’s trying to say is that your creation is not created in a vacuum. It’s a product of the circumstances of the world you live in. So yeah, I think everybody has an obligation to stand up. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who stray away from speaking out because they don’t want to alienate people, but it’s kind of like the stakes are too high to not speak out anymore. Silence is violence.”

We can have politics without music, but we can’t discuss music without touching on the cultural and societal events plaguing the world. It’s both a cliché and universal truth, but art does imitate life, even when you separate the art from the artist.  

“The idea that music should be political is interesting to me because I think there’s going to be a huge need, especially now,” Becker continues. “I think there’s going to be a huge need for music to be a safe place for people who feel like they are under attack by this kind of regime that was built on hatred. We get political updates on our phones and shit is bad all the time. And so I think music is evolving into this space in which people need to just feel something real and beautiful and something that is happening in front of them that is positive. So I think that that’s the politics of music going forward. It’s the politics of it being a place where [people] can be comfortable.”

“It’s giving them a moment of escape and I think that has value,” Barnett adds, “but I think sometimes we become addicted to that escape. We become escapists. We’re so enveloped in escapism that when something gets tough or something gets scary, we’ll look for an escape instead of facing it.”

Music can soothe as well as incite, but hopefully it teeters between the two. Williams may not have voted, but his platform as an artist facilitated the promotion of his stance. As for myself, I still stand firm in my decision to opt out of the vote. The overall victory of one candidate has launched a country that many think desperately needs reform into an uproar, not just with #notmypresident slogans, but with a reevaluation of this system as a whole.

“I just think that in 2017, without sounding painfully cliché, we need to be able to look back in very recent history, which is the year before, and make better choices,” says Butler. “I think that in 2017, as an American, I would really hope that we could humble the arrogance of the American collective consciousness. I think this is sort of a reality check for us liberals and hopefully it will be just as much as a reality check for those who were very supportive of someone like Donald Trump, which is their right. It’s everyone’s right to support whoever they want to, just as it is my right to say, ‘Fuck that dude and his administration and everything he stands for.” Voting is a right, but not an obligation. It is the platform, however, that the individual has laid out for his or herself that, when used wisely, can really make a difference in today’s times.

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