known for picking out the top crop of thought leaders for their annual music conference in Cannes, France, recently posted a guest blog post
composed by Emily Gonneau
, manager and head of Unicum-Music
, a multi-faceted agency that provides management, publishing and consultation services to musicians. Gonneau has an articulate point of view on many components of the music business and her newest contribution of industry discussion breaches the question of whether or not artists are losing their voices of opinion; particularly in regards to matters that touch upon political or otherwise controversial and sensitive matters. Her implications and outright statements propose that some of the artists that have more reach and power of speech are the ones that have “sold out.” While I concur with many of the points I read, a response playing devil’s advocate was only inevitable, so here I offer an open reply to you Emily, with thoughts of my own:
Artists, or at least their music, can be seen much like international commodities. They have no defined single border of existence, aside from the place out of which they are based. They are viewed and scrutinized by the entire world and, as such, have to maintain their “neutrality” in order to feel free enough to make themselves and their music accessible to the entire globe’s population. This is especially true of artists that might originate from one country but find their primary niche and positive reception in a completely different nation or hemisphere. Example? Southern Cali’s Rival Sons, who primarily tour and promote in Europe.
Your example of Beyonce, H&M and deaths from the clothing factories in Bangledesh…I’ll concur that the plain loss of life resulting from poor facility conditions is something that should need no political or managerial clearance to comment upon or to express emotion. Regarding less black and white situations though, considering that the governmental processes and ingrained political expectations of the world at large do not all reflect that of the U.S., (even if some actions might be deemed questionable / unacceptable on a simple scale of human decency,) isn’t some trepidation to be expected if one were to comment on events occurring outside of their home nation –especially if they themselves are floating about territories as a “foreign artist?”
The next example of Justin Bieber commenting on the subject of rape I will most definitely chalk up to voluntary mundanity: Is it not slightly superficial of his supporters in the media, to assume that somebody of Justin Bieber’s age, at the time the question was posed, should be given a pass because the interviewers are the ones who ‘mistakenly’ thought he would “come up with an enlightened and balanced answer?” on a topic like rape? It shouldn’t be about how old he is vis-à-vis the intricacy of the subject. If, let’s say, he were raised in a family where the sector surrounding said issue was a main and frequented point of discussion in his household, he would most likely have a more substantial and thought out view to share. Said view might still be slightly naïve and better developed after more life experience, but, it would be an opinion nonetheless.
Plenty of younger people form opinions on complex and multilayered issues, thanks in part to environments where the guardians or parental figures in the picture make it a point to explore these topics of controversy, whatever they might be. Bieber certainly wasn’t a grammar school student when he was approached, so I’m just thinking, his response still came down to a lack of issue importance in his individual life, no?
So I don’t necessarily agree that saying someone is “only ____ years old” is a justification or sensible “excuse” for why they cannot form and provide an articulate response to questions outside of their craft. At the end of the day, at least in terms of this example around Justin Bieber and rape, it’s a matter of personal importance and priority. It has nothing to do with his age or the potentially sheltering effect of the music industry’s current framework around songwriting.
Let’s also consider, that in earlier decades where protest songs and declarative statements in music were more frequent in the US, (e.g. the 60s/70s,) while artists did tour and visit other places where they might still attempt to maintain some neutrality, the backlash and awareness of any extreme opinion an artist might express, whether in song or in everyday speech, didn’t spread with nearly as much as efficiency and re-visitable permanence as anything does today thanks to digital transmissions.
That’s not to say that public relations and media had zero impact in previous decades, but, any extreme viewpoint, positive or negative, not only gets shared within an instant but, can be repeated over and over, millions of times, for periods that far outlast the “staying power” of previous, terrestrial forms of media. This can make repercussions feel far more serious for artists than what might have been the case when music of more controversial topics was played in the mainstream in the past.
Now let’s address the deeply shifted nature of our exposure to music, via parental filtering, in the 21st-century, more so than any time prior.
No denying that every generation has their idols and that every generation speaks somewhat downwardly to the one that follows, as if to say they are full of naïveté. However, I would venture to say that sanitizing (and consequently the lyrical/emotional emptying) of music has become much more prevalent and prioritized, which has a direct impact on what the people who market mainstream music believe to be acceptable to the majority of consumers. Why else would a serial collection of altered, controversial-less, compilations like “Kidz Bop”
do well enough to keep producing, if a large enough following didn’t think that softening up music’s lexicon was necessary and important?
(This of course brings up an entirely different question and paradox about why there is this altering of lyrics to create ubiquitous listener viability because, in its base forms, some popular music is deemed not lyrically appropriate, and yet parents act surprised when the singers of these “censurable songs” do or say anything thought to be unsuitable for their children, throwing tantrums of their own about these people being “in the spotlight” and being “celebrities who need to be aware that they are functioning as role models.” )
Since much of this ‘deadening of artist voices’ that you mentioned centers around a lack of opinion on governmental-related issues, and since we seem to be focusing on the idea that artists are “selling out” because they’ve gotten too focused on the girth of their brands and the affiliated funds attached to them, could a solution be, that we say to artists, “Oh, you’re just about to reach the threshold of “Too rich to care about real things” so you have to stop here?”
Hypothetically, if we told artists the key would be to maintain some level of ‘down to earth-ness,’ manifested in the form of implying they stay just small enough to not to lose sight of their personal voices, and if the implication is that those not in the mainstream are the only ones open to speaking up, we would be squashing the idea that music is a career capable of inhabiting the zone of sustainable and high living. Furthermore, such a thought process would almost become like another form of oppression in itself. Amusingly ironic. Lastly, let’s not forget to give credit where it is due. There are plenty of causes and events that are recognized and pointed out by artists, often expressed via social media like Twitter and through special songs. However, that then ventures into a third large and separate discussion on the over inflation of the music industry’s role in world events. (e.g. natural disasters)
Despite all my play to the contrary, I’m still up for a positive change to the tune of your post’s interests. My answer isn’t one of defined clarity. Nor is it one that I feel would be easy to implement in thinking, let alone in practical action. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that it is time for the pendulum to begin its swing back to the other side –away from the obsession over musicians having to be “renaissance products” in order to keep their heads above the water in the sea of mainstream consumerism.
Musicians didn’t try to be everything and everywhere back in the heyday of less politically correct music but music as an entertaining form of art kept a foothold in the world. It seems to me, that the public and the music business have lost their interest in the concept of, “Take what’s relevant and leave the rest.” If an artist writes a song or even a one off album that is filled with political undertones, that shouldn’t mean they automatically get relegated to the back and labeled as a permanent sub-genre brand, now unsuitable for mass radio play. A singular event or feeling shouldn’t define an artist or their style; any more than a single illness, accident or other differentiating characteristic should define an average consumer –who also happens to be a plain old human being.
Who knows if the music industry will ever be able to revert back to a less vapid point of view but that feels like the real loss it needs to take, to get off this vanilla road.
“One day my prayers are gonna be answered.
For so long, I’ve been hungry for something else.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I work hard ’cause at the end of the day,
the Lord helps those that help themselves.”