After 20-plus years of writing about music, there’s one aspect of the scene that continues to utterly baffle me, particularly right about now, late in an election cycle. You see it over and over again on social media: an artist comments on a current political topic and/or candidate, and some portion of his or her fan base goes apoplectic and tells them words to the effect of “shut up and sing.”
Those specific words come to mind precisely because the Dixie Chicks have chosen presidential election season to re-emerge with their first tour in nearly a decade. The band’s infamous 2003 “incident”—lead singer Natalie Maines’ caustic criticism of President Bush on the eve of the Iraq War—triggered boycotts, death threats, a platinum album (Taking The Long Way) and an award-winning documentary film (Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing), but in the end the controversy seemed to wear the group down. Maines and her bandmates ended up paying a substantial personal price for committing the sin of speaking their minds on the most important issue of the day.
A similar fan-artist dynamic—admiring the hell out of someone until they express an opinion different from yours—has dogged Bruce Springsteen for decades. How anyone could be a passionate fan of his music and not appreciate how his political activism is a direct reflection of the values expressed in his lyrics is a mystery to me, but to this day, conservatives like Chris Christie and David Brooks seem genuinely flummoxed that their musical idol’s politics stand in firm opposition to their own. (Along these lines, one of the elements of Believe in Me that may bear further exploration in the future is, what career consequences might Jordan Lee experience as a result of his political activism?)
Of course, in both of the above examples, my own views fall in line with the artist in question. What happens when that isn’t the case? Well, that’s up to you as a listener. Is the political stance taken by an artist you admire a deal-breaker for you as a fan, or not? I think Ayn Rand was a sociopath, but I still listen to early Rush. Members of the genre-straddling group Switchfoot have occasionally (and, I think, inadvertently) associated themselves with unsavory characters on the Christian Right, but I don’t believe for a minute that they’re bigots.
In sum: artists do not exist for the sole purpose of entertaining you, the audience. They are people, too, and citizens, and (one hopes) voters. Their political views may or may not align with yours, and when you find that they don’t, it’s on you to make the next move, not them. To anyone still tempted to shout “shut up and sing,” I’d say: you first.