Politics and music. As with politics and religion, politics and sex, politics and successfully making it through a family dinner, politics, as it poisons its other bedfellows, arguably colors and distorts the purity of the art of song. Though great anthems have been tied to major social changes and progressive movements, during this divisive political season, aside from a few wisecracks in Kanye West and Nicki Minaj lyrics, the relationship between music and politics has appeared a bit superfluous. Without Conor Oberst chronicling Bush's failings in folksy verse on Jay Leno or The National simultaneously gorgeously and awkwardly lending its song “Fake Empire” to an Obama campaign ad, the indie music industry's input into next month's presidential elections has been seemingly quiet.
Quietness, however, is not the end of the tale. While Mitt Romney has received backing from Kid Rock and Toby Keith, he has also admitted to being a fan of The Killers and has featured the Silversun Pickups song “Panic Switch” during some of his rallies. The Killers merely shrugged at Romney's enthusiasm and the Silversun Pickups sent the Romney campaign a “cease and desist” letter. Nonetheless, the Republican party has not fully estranged itself from the alternative scene despite its dearth of conservatives.
Obama, always culturally savvy and achingly hip (the iconic image most associated with his previous campaign was made famous by street artist Shephard Fairey), released a list of 29 songs representative of his mission. This list includes tracks by Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine, Wilco, and Ray Lamontagne. Though Arcade Fire has long aligned itself with Obama, the campaign's selection of “We Used to Wait” nonetheless seems less than inspired given the tune's desperate tone. Obama can count on support from most of the music industry, from Bruce Springsteen to Jay-Z, so the song's presence does not seem merely a matter of mutual back rubbing. Perhaps his staff were attempting to be appeal to a certain demographic by being ironic? (They did, after all, use indie music.)
Bands have every right to express themselves by making political statements and lending their work to those they support and politicians are just as free to like and perceive their platforms to be reflected in certain songs. Great music though, as when used in commercials, generally seems cheapened when associated with a particular political party. (That is, unless one really loves the car or candidate on display.) An informed electorate should be capable enough to make their own judgments without a gimmicky play at hipness having any genuine influence on them.
Politically motivated music more than has its place. The sixties cries of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Buffalo Springfield, and Marvin Gaye remain relevant. The wrathful declarations of Johnny Rotten and Zack de La Rocha still electrify. Plugging irrelevant songs like “Panic Switch” and “We Used to Wait” into political preening, however, seems manipulative and false.