“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.” – Plato, The Republic
My Facebook feed has been nothing but my actor/magician/visual artist/dancer/singer/musician friends arguing with my other friends about funding for programming like PBS and the National Endowment for Arts. (Don’t leave – I promise, I’m pretty tired of it, too.)
The big question is, why bother funding things like music and art when there are so many other, more obvious problems to address? The answer, repeatedly, is that art is one of the things that keeps us safe from those other problems – and, as Plato notes, from the State itself.
The idea of the anti-establishment or counterculture in music is nothing new – as long as there’s been something to protest, artists have written songs to express their concerns over the current culture.
Just like a lyric as seemingly simple as Weezy’s “My girl be askin’ why I don’t wear no suit and tie – I tell her that’s what they put on you when you die” hints at something much deeper than clothes, music is indicative of the tensions, emotions, and mood of the culture that creates it.
The backlash over Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade came not from explicit lyrics or risqué costuming, but from her decision to pose, disinterested and defiant, on the roof of a sinking police car, reflecting the anxieties of an America still reeling from the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of police officers. By aligning herself with the Black Lives Matter Movement, Beyoncé made a marginalized, almost taboo political topic the focus of mainstream, entertainment-based discussion: while not everyone is willing to engage in political debate, we all consume entertainment in one form or another, and ours is a celebrity culture. (After all, we did elect a reality TV star with no other qualifications as president last November.)
So music does matter. Art matters. Expression, innovation, and change matter, and for that reason, they have always been, and will always be, “full of danger.” Create responsibly.