Jay Nordlinger, a guy who gets paid to write about classical music for a living (I’ll confess, I’m a bit jealous), has a piece about the role of government in the arts, and arts in society, politics, etc. It’s in the form of a questionnaire of generic questions the ubiquitous critic often receives, along the lines of “should the government support the arts,” “should artists make political statements with their works,” etc.
Nordlinger—not only an excellent critic, but a master of the emphatic incomplete sentence—handles these questions well. I particularly like his response to the question about politics in art. Here is an excerpt, including the question (italicized) and Nordlinger’s response (unformatted):
You will concede that politics has a place in art, right? Many artists think it is incumbent on them to deal with the politics of their day. To make directly political art. Is there such a thing as political art? There’s art with politics in it. Most of the time, I think it’s pretty boring, because, somehow, the art takes a backseat to politics. And the politics is of a hectoring quality.
Politics is often a spoiler of art, because of that very quality: “Eat your peas.” It may well be that political art is yet another excuse for people to lecture. (Lecturing has its time and place, needless to say.) Better, I think, is to do things subtly. I like a movie that way, for example. A movie may convey a message — a great many of them do. But you don’t have to do it in a honkingly obvious way. Weave it in, you know?
I think of Shakespeare, which is cheating, because he is the greatest of all artists, but let’s do it anyway. Many of his plays are political — or rather, they have politics in them. But the art of them transcends the politics. The politics means practically nothing to us today. Same with Verdi’s operas, some of them. Un ballo in maschera is stuffed with politics — but we don’t give a damn about that, and rightly so. The music and the human drama are what counts.
Nordlinger is spot-on here. I am very “political,” in the sense that I write about politics and rarely hide my political leanings (unless trying to enjoy myself in the midst of a gaggle of progressives—not exactly the friendliest of situations for dissenting viewpoints and wrongthink). But I’m also a musician, and I avoid writing anything overtly political in my music.
My song “Hipster Girl Next Door“—the closest thing I have to a “hit,” as it’s frequently requested at live shows—has one oblique line that says, “And though you hope for change, I hope I’m never estranged/from my Hipster Girl Next Door.” The song is more a humorous critique of the hipster, coffee shop culture and its trappings, not a diss track against the Obama administration.
I also started writing an over-the-top, sci-fi rock opera back in 2013, The Mystic Chords, that was to embody William F. Buckley’s admonishment “don’t immanentize the eschaton” (in other words, don’t try to create heaven on Earth). I think that work, though, were it ever to be completed, would fall under the Shakespearean rubric of “a work of art with politics, but about the human condition.”
Otherwise, I understand that people don’t want to be bludgeoned over the head with half-baked political ideas in their music. You might cater to a specific niche, but you’re going to alienate a big chunk of potential listeners. And pedantic hectoring and lecturing in otherwise fun music isn’t going to win anyone over.
The best art, when it does have something to say, does so with subtle suggestion. Subtlety is incredibly hard to pull off. It’s like when jazz musicians says, “It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play.” I honestly have no idea what they mean by that, but I think the same concept applies to art, especially humorous, slice-of-life, tongue-in-cheek songwriting like mine: it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it, and how you say things without saying them. Implication, in other words (there’s a Nordlingian incomplete sentence for you).
But I digress. Those are my slapdash, off-the-cuff observations at the end of a hectic week. My Internet is finally restored, so I should be back to some degree of normality. Spring Break is approaching, too, and I can tell teachers and students need a well-earned rest.
If you’d like to support my art, please visit www.tjcookmusic.com, or pick up a copy of my EP, Contest Winner EP, at any number of online retails (see my website for direct links). You can also pick up my digital EP, Electrock EP: The Four Unicorns of the Apocalypse, for just $4!