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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2002/04/22
by David Steinberg

Why Politics and Music Don’t Mix

Way back in, I
wrote, "The other perceived strike against Phish’s lyrics is that they
are personal instead of political. One of these months I’m going to
write the column that explains why political lyrics are a disservice
to both politics and music." That month has finally come. Music and
politics conflict on a number of levels, both practical and
1: Music is emotional, politics is logical (at least ideally)
"A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a
song is learned by heart and repeated over and over." – Joe Hill
Music is a powerful force. The brain builds up barriers between
reality and what we perceive. Music manages to bypass those barriers
somehow and affect us more directly. As a result, musical lyrics can
seem more direct than spoken words. This is why lyrics rarely have
the same power when you just read them. It’s also a reason why
political music isn’t fair. Write a song that makes people feel
incredible and the beliefs in the song will have an advantage over
other points of view. That’s great if you’re a fan of the beliefs
expressed, but what happens when music is used to further viewpoints
that you don’t like? In any example, it furthers bad political
thinking, people choosing based on emotional responses, not thinking
through issues.
2: Music is about the universal, politics is specific.
Part of what makes a good lyric is that people can identify with it.
You don’t want to write a song about the specifics of your breakup
("And then at 3 PM (THREEE PEEEEE EEEEEEEM)/On last Saturday
(Laaaaaaaaast SaturDAAAAAAAAAAAAY)/You smoked that cigar (Smoked that
Ciiiiiii-gaaaaaar)/Despite my allergy"). You want people who aren’t
you to feel the same way as you. A good lyric can be bent to a
completely different situation than the writer intended and still
Politics doesn’t work that way. I argue politics like a
mathematician. I take generalize the principles that people are
arguing, change the specifics of the case, and ask if they would agree
with it there, eg, "So you’re opposed to abortion laws because you
think that women have a right control their bodies, how come you’re
not in favor of complete legalization of all drugs?" Whenever I try
that approach people get confused and change the subject.
While ideals underlie politics, people think about it in a case by
case situation. The last thing politicians want is for people to use
an argument that they made to cover a different situation. The goal
of a good song is the opposite to the goal of a good lyric.
Moreover, while brevity is essential with music, it’s the enemy of
politics. It’s one thing to say "Lower my taxes." The bill that gets
passed to do it, would end up being much more complicated because it
would have to deal with the consequences of the act. Not even Dylan
could write a song that would make a 200 page policy platform into a
3: Concerts can be inclusive, politics is exclusive
No matter how self evident you think your views are, there will be
people who disagree with them. As a result, political music creates a
more homogeneous crowd. Conservatives might love "Tangled Up in
Blue," but they would spend most of the time at a Bob Dylan show
feeling as though they were being preached at. Conversely, Outkast may
rock hard, but it would be difficult for me to handle the anti gay
rights lyrics in "13th Floor/Growing Old." [1] While no artist should
ever avoid writing a song that says what they think, from the point of
view of a fan, it can get frustrating knowing that you would love a
song but can’t because it goes against what you believe.
4: Music is timeless, politics is based in its time.
Let’s go back to the world of 1967. Country Joe and the Fish wrote a
song called "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag." It was quite popular
at the time as an anti-Vietnam anthem. Today the chorus is still
amusing, but that’s it. No matter how biting your critique of a
political situation is, it’ll become passe when circumstances change.
Your song is destined for the cut out bins.
This isn’t to say that songs can’t be both political and timeless.
They just have to work within those rules. "We Shall Overcome," "Get
Up Stand Up," and "The Harder They Come" might have come out of
particular situation, but they are relevant to any struggle. Which of
these lyrics is more likely to be relevant in 100 years:
"And I keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave
So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine
And then the harder they come the harder they’ll fall,
One and all"
"It’s good for the flu
Good for asthma
Good for tuberculosis
Even numara thrombosis
Got to legalize it
Don’t criticize it
Legalize it, yeah, yeah
I will advertise it?"
Music, like math, works best when you first generalize. If you can
write about the principles you’re fighting about instead of the
particulars you are fighting over, you can write a great song and
still have it have some relevance to your cause. It might not work
well as a party platform, but perhaps it will inspire people for
generations to come.
"Tainted as the mind who’s blinded to the point where Sodomites get all the rights"
If you have an interpretation to that that’s friendly to gay rights,
I’d like to hear it. Otherwise I couldn’t ever imagine enjoying the
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at and he was the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion.

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