When independent music acts came to Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011, they really knew only one thing about the Midwestern city: under the capitol dome right down the street, Republican Gov. Scott Walker was trying to strip public unions of their bargaining “rights,” and the struggle was underway. Bands would typically set aside some time during the show to invite Walker to perform an action on himself that likely isn’t even physically possible.
They knew they could show solidarity with the struggle because indie music shows are safe spaces for progressive proselytizing. Liberals tend to overestimate the popularity of their crusades, yet small-venue music shows are universally receptive.
But there are those of us who lean Right who live among the hipsters in the world of so-called “alternative” independent music. After all, what is conservatism, other than “I like America’s earlier stuff a lot better?”
With good reason, right-wingers complain about the liberal Hollywood orthodoxy in popular entertainment. Often, conservatives are forced to enjoy culture with one eye closed, wincing at whatever liberal message is being dropped on their heads. Rarely will one see a movie about a woman who courageously battles cancer with a generous health plan provided by her private-sector employer or a film about a Burundi family that eats McDonald’s every day for a month and immediately declares America to be the greatest nation on Earth for producing so much low-cost, delicious food.
Maybe Indie Music Needs a Fairness Doctrine
But even in the movie industry, you have your rumored-Republicans: Bruce Willis, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, et al. The independent music scene, however, is the most ideologically monolithic brand of entertainment on the market. For an indie artist, displaying even the faintest whiff of conservatism can be career suicide. For small-label musicians, conformity is paramount; for instance, even small-label darling Sufjan Stevens, author of one of the year’s most praised albums, is considered an indie music oddity in that he openly admits to being a practicing Christian.
Musically, of course, conservatives are forever tied to country music, as it is the one entertainment medium right-wingers have infiltrated. Any Tea Party rally is bound to be bookended by modern country anthems, to the delight of attendees.
But for right-wing indie fans, the live music scene always plays out the same way. You go to a show, have a few beers, and at some point, the band—assuming that only the like-minded progressive cognoscenti are in attendance—goes on a political screed that receives wild applause. Your liberal friends poke you in the shoulder, knowing you’re just closing your eyes and praying for the music to start again.
In these moments, I’ve always thought it would be interesting if there were some sort of Fairness Doctrine for political concert speech. If a band lectures its audience on stage, the show should be halted while a shy conservative offers counter-arguments over loud boos. For instance, one could explain to the young, bespectacled crowd that unions bargaining power limited their chances of getting a state job by using seniority to push recent college graduates out of government positions. In a sense, it would be counter-cultural Andy Kaufman-esque performance art; just seeing how far you could anger a crowd before it was moved to roll eyes at you unironically.
It’s Part of Indie Music’s Anti-Establishment Feel
For those deeply into the indie music scene, however, simply boycotting shows is not an option. If you stop going to shows on political grounds, you’re simply punishing yourself. If you fail to listen to the album put out by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett this year, she will never know—but your ears will be poorer as a result.
Indeed, finding small bands that feel like they belong only to me has been a lifelong endeavor. As a young man in college during the grunge era, I proudly crowd-surfed while wearing my Doc Martens and flannels. I have lived through myriad indie music eras; I was there for sadcore, freak folk, beach band revivals, and dozens of bands with “Wolf” or “Bear” in their names. I was there for Vampire Weekend, the inevitable Vampire Weekend backlash, and the backlash to the backlash. Somewhere on the Internet exists more than 200 hours of my friends and me podcasting about groundbreaking indie bands.
As I can attest, ideological demagoguery is a problem conservative music fans grow up with. From a young age, I began doubting my political predilections, knowing that they would have made my favorite bands—R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, the Smiths—wish I had never bought their records.
But even though I revered these artists, they had a hand in helping me shift to conservatism. At the Grammy awards in 1992, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe wore a hat that said, “White House stop AIDS.” I, too was for stopping AIDS, but as a 19-year old, I began to wonder: Was George H.W. Bush sitting in the office saying, “You know, I would sign this ‘get rid of AIDS’ bill, but ‘Knots Landing’ is on?” Surely there had to be other factors at work other than mere government intervention.
But the one inviolable rule of independent music-making is that artists must complain about the big music labels and the free market that wrought them. Or, that was the case until the big music labels stopped signing promising little bands. Now, the major labels only carry boy bands, rappers, and Taylor Swift. It’s why when you watch the MTV Music Awards, you’re more likely to see Dick Cheney there than you are to see an actual guitar.
The Free Market Has Been an Indie Boon
In fact, the old big-business capitalistic system worked well for small, struggling bands. If your band merited a wider audience, you were called up from the minor leagues and given a large record deal. Does anyone prefer today’s system, where a masterpiece like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” would be banished to the outer edges of Spotify? Would we all be better off if Nirvana had stayed with a minor label and became a cult act, rather than changing the course of music forever? Without major label backing, would Bob Dylan have ever escaped the Greenwich Village coffee houses?
And it’s not as if big business hasn’t done its share in supporting the music industry. Many of the venues these bands play are classical theaters built with people with boatloads of money. Instrument companies are also big-business; in 2012, Fender sold $700 million worth of guitars. It’s not as if bands are in their garages crafting special artisanal drums; they need big, successful companies to make the tools they use to make music.
This all brings us to perhaps the most odious modern musical contrivance, the “irrelevant old band who objects to a Republican politician using their music” trick. (See: Survivor objecting to Mitt Romney using “Eye of the Tiger,” etc.) Typically, a conservative will use a washed-up band’s music, then that band will complain and make headlines for the first time in decades. It almost seems like these bands should pay the Republican politician to play their music, just so they can gripe about it for publicity. It’s a winner all around.
It’s actually difficult to think of a place within popular culture where progressives are made to feel as uncomfortable as conservatives are at small-venue music shows. Maybe a Democrat would feel a little weird about being at a Toby Keith concert, but it seems even there the crowd would be reasonably mixed.
The Right Is the Anti-Establishment Party
When I put that question to a liberal friend, he steered the conversation to the world of sports. He’s a longtime Denver Broncos fan, and it always made him uncomfortable that National Football League legend John Elway was an outspoken Republican. Further, current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is a long-time GOP donor who recently wrote a check to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
It would make sense that sports would attract more famous Republicans, given the meritocracy that is athletic competition. But then again, Peyton Manning isn’t grabbing a microphone at halftime and lecturing the 80,000 in attendance about the Benghazi study committee. One can enjoy a football game in relative political peace.
Perhaps independent music artists will begin to ever-so-slightly shift their allegiances when they recognize conservatives as the rising counterculture in America. The right wing is currently the ideology fighting against the oppressions of our time.
We’re the ones that want to you to be able to say what you want without microaggressing anyone. We want you to eat, smoke, and drink without the spindly finger of government interjecting itself into your business. We believe you should make tons of money for being the best in your field, and that you should do so unapologetically.
It couldn’t hurt for conservatives to make more of an effort to find music that is more adventurous and challenging, then telling everyone they know about it. Even if some of it is political, suck it up and enjoy the places it might take you. Enjoying Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s thunderous, heart-pounding overtures or Jeremy Messersmith’s fey ruminations on unrequited love shouldn’t be dependent on one’s opinion about the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The ultimate antidote, of course, would be to, as presidential candidate Marco Rubio has said about hip-hop music, “Ignore what their politics may be and just enjoy the music.” Let’s just hope bands respect their fans enough to give us that chance.