Under normal circumstances, musicians don’t have much political power.
We don’t like to admit this, because we want to be the “critic and conscience of society.” In the face of oppression, we want to speak the truth fearlessly, like Pete Seeger. Or fearfully, like Shostakovich.
In reality, our protest songs and our satires go unheard or misunderstood. We may stir the hearts of our audiences, but we don’t soften those of our leaders.
That’s under normal circumstances. But recently? Nothing’s been that normal. Nothing at all.
Case in point: the phenomenon that several top musicians have declined to perform at the upcoming American presidential inauguration. Elton John turned it down. Andrea Bocelli reportedly considered it, but also declined, possibly fearing a backlash from his fan base. A member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir quit because she “could never look myself in the mirror again with self-respect.”
All of this creates quite a big problem for America’s soon-to-be rulers, doesn’t it?
I’ve written before in this blog about music as political protest, and about the at-times uneasy relationship between musicians and the ruling class. (And in case anyone accuses me of liberal bias, I’d like to point out that in my experience, liberal elites can behave just as badly towards musicians as conservative ones.)
Ever since there has been such a thing as a ruling class and a music profession, each group has had something the other wants. Consider the troubadours, wandering around the south of France pretending to be in love with wealthy patronesses, who were presumably fond of showing off their pet troubadours to their wealthy girlfriends. Consider just about the entire career of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is how it goes: musicians provide the rich and powerful classes with status symbols. Music, being expensive, is “classy” in every sense of the word. By the same token, musicians are the perennially broke supplicants to the ruling class, whether we’re looking for sponsors or applying for government arts grants. That’s how the world has always worked.
Until now. Under normal circumstances, money could buy pretty much everything. Until now, it was always clear which one of us was singing for his supper and which one was paying the piper.
But just as so many things have been turned upside down recently, so has this. The only precedent I could think of where musicians have made their point by not performing is the famous story of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony–surely the most imaginative response to a labour dispute in music history.
Obviously, since I’m not an international superstar, no one’s going to ask me to play at the presidential inauguration. But I did ask myself what I would do if–by some wild leap of the imagination–I were offered a substantial sum to do so. I’ve never been averse to the idea of selling out, but in spite of my modest avarice for the largesse of rulers, I think my conscience would compel me to turn it down too.