For many young, and not so young, people, summer in Australia means music festivals, with the Big Day Out being the biggest (no pun intended) of these. A day-long festival, with bands from a number of different genre’s performing across a number of different stages, the Big Day Out has become an annual travelling circus, with performances in five Australian cities and one in New Zealand. As with the majority of music festivals, there is nothing radical about the festival: it costs a relatively large amount of money, and is sponsored by some of Australia’s larger corporations. But this year there was an undercurrent of radical politics.
The most overt example of this was the presence of a reformed Rage Against the Machine as the headliners. But other artists, such as Billy Bragg, the Nightwatchman and Anti-Flag provided plenty of music for thought for festival-goers, even though a number of reports suggest that this went relatively misunderstood by many patrons. (1)
The intention of this posting is not to give a review of the festival (I didn’t go to any of the Big Day Out festivals, but did manage to see Anti-Flag and Rage Against the Machine at their Sydney sideshow). My major reason for this post is to question the value of music as a medium for political change.
Music with a political message has a long history, from Joe Hill, to Woody Guthrie, to Bob Dylan to The Clash. Popular music has often thrown up performers who wear their radical beliefs on their sleeves. But the question is: just because you are a fan of the music, does that mean that you are going to support the political beliefs of the artist?
I believe that the answer to this question is generally no. A number of people love the sound of a number of these ‘political’ performers, but don’t subscribe to their political beliefs. This is fair enough, why should you believe in something just because your favourite singer does, their opinion is no more worthy or right than the next man. But, what I do believe music is able to achieve is a sense of community, while also having the ability to spark a person’s interest in world issues.
It is just necessary to look at the performance of the MC5 outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in 1968 or Rage Against the Machine’s performance outside the same gathering in 2000, to see the power of music in bringing together people in a common cause.
But it is possibly the second of these aspects of music that has the greatest potential. If by listening to a bands lyrics, a person decides to investigate the meaning behind the lyrics, they may uncover a number of aspects of the world that they were previously unaware of. Using Rage Against the Machine as an example, listening to their albums, a person will learn about the struggle of the Zapatista’s in Chiapas, police brutality, the struggle of Indigenous peoples and the corruption of the current political system. If in learning about any of these, the person then goes on to act on these issues, then the music has played an important role.
First and foremost, music must be enjoyable to listen to, and this will vary from person to person. But if an artist can encourage listeners to investigate causes that are close to their heart, then the music can become more than just sound, it becomes a method for achieving change.
The final point I want to make is in reference to a short speech given by Zach de la Rocha during the sideshow. In a music interlude during their song Wake Up, de la Rocha delivers a short speech to the crowd. The first of these speeches delivered after the band’s reunion referred to Noam Chomsky’s statement that the current US administration are war criminals and should be tried as such. This speech caused uproar in the US, notably on Fox where conservative commentator Ann Coulter called the band losers. (2) Anyway, in the speech delivered in Sydney, de la Rocha noted “as much as we can say and point out and congratulate each other for getting rid of boot lickers like Mr Howard, we know, we know that the real votes take place in the streets, they take place in the streets. So lets honour Dr King and remember that.” This is a point that I believe needs reinforcing: we may achieve a change of government through the ballot box, but the real struggle for a fair and just society remains on the streets, with the people. Music may not achieve the change, but maybe some of the crowd walked out of the concert with the intention of fighting for social change.
So, what do you think: can music bring about change? Is the struggle for a fair and just society in Australia and elsewhere more than just voting in elections?
(2) for a review of de la Rocha’s speech and Coulter’s response, see http://www.spin.com/features/everybodystalkingabout/2007/05/070504_rage/