Mixing Music and Politics
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
This is a topic I’ve honestly wanted to cover for a while. I have already written a lot of it in my head over the past couple of weeks, but with the state of the world and the stress level that comes with living through a pandemic, I’ve procrastinated writing it because I knew it would take a while. There’s a lot I want to say, and there are a lot of backstories involved. I’m going to do my best to make it all make sense and attempt to be linear, but there’s a lot to unpack, and I’ve had a lot of extra time in quarantine to dwell on it.
My interest in politics and my interest in music (specifically country music) started around the same time. When I was a kid my favorite band in the whole world was the Dixie Chicks. We had their “Home” album and I remember insisting we play it any time we were in the car. “Traveling Soldier” was my go-to song any time I needed to sing. The instrumentals, the harmonies, the lyrics; everything about them I loved, and for a while, the rest of the world seemed to agree.
Then, 9/11 happened. I was so young at the time, although I knew what that happened was bad, I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of it all, and how much it would eventually shape the world I’d grow up in. One minute, our biggest worries were who was going to use the playhouse and when the baby chicks in our class were going to hatch, and the next minute, our entire country would feel like it had lost its innocence. The only specific memory I have of that day was being confused and asking my teacher why we weren’t going outside for recess, because it wasn’t raining. I remember my parents spending a lot of time watching T.V and getting annoyed that they weren’t playing with me as much. I remember going on “freedom walks” with other families on summer nights with flashlights, and running frightened to the car with my mom when a sonic boom was heard in our town while we were outside.
My Dad worked for the airline (one that lost planes that day) which made the attack feel even more prominent in our lives. We traveled frequently on his passes, and the heightened security in airports post 9/11 definitely felt strange.
I believe it was around this time that I began paying attention to politics. I began asking questions. I began to see more and form my own thoughts, however small, on these complex issues that would continue to affect the lives of myself and my peers to this day. I don’t think the adults at the time realized how much us kids really were paying attention, to the point where we would even discuss the issues with each other at school.
Eventually, the music I loved would collide with the world of politics I was beginning to understand. Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, spoke out against the invasion of Iraq and President Bush in the now-infamous moment that would lead to them getting their CDs burned and their music blacklisted from radio. To many, especially in the country music industry, it became a cautionary tale. The lesson young artist took away was never to bring up political issues if you wanted a shot at a successful career. For me though, as a little kid paying attention to politics and still loving my favorite band, it simply felt unfair. I took their side. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t be allowed to say what they think is right, even if not everyone agreed. I wasn’t mad about what was said, but I was certainly mad about how people decided to react to it. I still wanted to hear them on the radio. I thought in America, we were allowed to speak freely.
Then came the presidential election, and as I said before, at this point, I was paying attention, and honestly so were other kids. My parents were democrats and supported John Kerry, so naturally, I did as well, but it wasn’t blindly. I remember watching debates with them. I remember learning about the war and the discussions around it.
Since then, I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t pay attention to politics. During the 2008 election, I remember watching primary debates on both sides of the aisle with my family. Before the candidates were widdled down, I liked Joe Biden. My parents supported Hillary Clinton and then eventually Obama in the general election. We watched the VP debates too. As I grew, I continued to pay attention, and as I learned more and more about basic US history, I understood more and more and formed more of my own opinions. I was also definitely a feminist before I knew there was a word for it. I spoke my mind, I didn’t back down from a challenge, and I believed girls could do anything we set our minds to and deserved the same opportunities to do so.
Despite what happened to the Dixie Chicks, I remained a fan. I idolized Natalie Maines (who’s words would be vindicated by many with time) and do to this day. I thought what she said, and what they endured, was brave. I admire their defiance.
So when the time came for me to pursue my own music career and begin building a brand and a name for myself, I went back and forth about how I was going to handle politics. I wanted to be successful, and I didn’t want to scare fans or industry leaders away, but at the same time, I also didn’t want to compromise my values. For a while (in my college days before my move to Nashville) before I really started making professional moves, I had separate twitter accounts. One strictly for tweets about music, and one was the rest of my thoughts. When the time came to consolidate all of my social media I needed to make a decision.
I started out avoiding posting anything political. I thought I would keep it strictly about music. That would prove eventually impossible for me, especially during election cycles. I just had so many thoughts, so many things I wanted to say, and most of all, I felt that my voice mattered. I felt it was important, and I finally realized that being in music shouldn’t mean I have to pretend to be something that I’m not.
I made the active choice to be an artist that talks about politics because inevitably, it's my authentic self. Not speaking on it feels superficial. It feels like a lie. It feels like I’m compromising my true self in seeking the affirmation of others, and frankly, that’s just no way to live.
At the end of the day, I’d rather be hated for something that I am, than loved for something that I’m not. So at the core of this decision, for me, was the realization that if I wanted to truly be myself then I could not keep myself from speaking on political issues. It was something that I’d been paying attention to and something that I cared enough to speak about since I was a kindergartener. I think it’s important, and I deserve to speak on it as any other American deserves to. The thought that somehow musicians shouldn’t, honestly seems so silly to me. Being in music doesn’t make you any less of an American, whose life will be shaped by political issues. We’re not shoving our opinions down anyone's throat like we’re so often told. We're exercising our first amendment right, just like any other American can regardless of their career choices.
My music isn’t centered around my politics, but it doesn’t avoid it either. My songwriting is storytelling, and there are many stories that deal with politics. Sometimes when I feel so strongly about something that it’s almost too hard to express, it comes out as a song. Politics often bring about strong feelings and reactions in me. Many times music is the best way I can put my feelings into words. I've got songs like "More than Prayers" about gun violence and "I Believe You" about sexual assault survivors, but I also don't limit my writing to only political topics. I’m not a political artist. I am an artist who is also politically active.
Some may take a look at my social media and see a liberal firebrand. I am admittedly liberal, but my views are probably more nuanced than some would believe based on my posts alone. I believe most if not all of the things on the typical democratic platform, but my opinions are also shaped by things like studying abroad in a communist country (appreciating American democracy for that reason) and working for small businesses, understanding that capitalism isn’t always bad and can, in fact, be good in a lot of ways. The thing about political ideologies is that they are not one size fits all. If the subject weren't so taboo, I think that in talking to each other about these things, we'd realize that we aren't as different as we appear.
Something that I want to make abundantly clear however is that there are issues I will take hard lines on. There is no wiggle room or "look at this from another perspective" on issues of human rights abuses, racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation, identity, or religion. I believe everyone has a right to their opinion, but I do not believe all opinions deserve respect. You can’t respect an opinion that disrespects someone's existence. I also believe that science is science regardless of anyone's opinion. There is no such thing as "alternative facts." Those are called lies.
This is fundamentally important as far as my music is concerned because I want any project I’m involved in or any concert that I host to be inclusive and safe for all fans to enjoy the music and have a fun time. I will not tolerate bigotry at my shows, and I will not allow my music to be involved in anything that does not respect the truth, freedom, and justice for all.
When it comes to legitimate political issues that can warrant honest debate, I also reserve the right to change my opinion based on new knowledge and new information. Nobody is perfect, and even people with the best intentions can be ignorant. I know I have been in my past. I think there is a distinct difference between ignorance and malice, and I think most people in our world are inherently good, even if they are misguided. I don’t entirely believe in cancel culture, and I think the internet mob can sometimes rush to judgment, or take things too far. We should aim to educate and change people's hearts before we try to capture them at their worst, make it our mission to ruin their lives and shun them. I think if we want to change the world we can’t do it from within our own echo chamber. We need to approach others strategically and give them the chance to change for the better.
In that sense, I personally am working on trying to be less self-righteous and judgmental. That doesn't mean I won't be courageous and stand up for what I believe in, but I will try harder to win the person, rather than just win an argument. At the end of the day, simply making someone feel stupid for their beliefs probably isn't going to change anything for the better. I've grown to understand that at the end of the day influence matters more than power. It’s not always about shutting people down, it’s about winning people over. Sometimes that process can be incredibly frustrating. As a person with certain privileges, it is my responsibility to work on shaping the mindset of those in my own community. I am not going to disown anyone who doesn’t agree with me entirely. I think remaining friends people who may be ignorant when it comes to certain things has a much better chance of changing their thoughts than cutting them out of my life, and in doing so, depriving them of my perspective. If all someone is seeing are Fox News pundits fear-mongering all day, it makes it a lot easier for them to believe liberal-leaning people hate America and want to destroy everything they care about. That's a lot harder to do when you're friends with someone like me and can clearly see that's not the case.
“Dixie Chicked” has become a verb used to discourage artists, especially in country music, from speaking on politics. For years young artists like Taylor Swift feared the repercussions of speaking on politics and were hesitant because they didn’t want it to negatively impact their careers. Although you can never be without risk, I believe the culture around music and politics, even in country music, is changing. It's also important to point out that it was really never ENTIRELY taboo from the start. Artists like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton have been politically active in life and music and remained successful. Now, even since the days of the Dixie Chicks backlash, Artists like Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Kelsea Ballerini openly speak on political issues and have managed to keep their careers intact. This may be due to the power players in the industry shifting over time, but I also believe it’s due to the fact that the young fans, the generation we’re selling ourselves to, are more socially conscious than those before them. Many of them want to know where you stand on politics and will support you accordingly. In this era, no message sends a message anyway. It sends a message of complacency. You will be judged whether you say something or you stay silent, so in my opinion, you might as well stand up for what you think is right.
This isn’t just limited to music. Consumers, in general, are now paying attention to politics, and that’s why you are seeing more brands speaking out on political issues. There are even apps that can tell you what political parties different company executives are donating to.
It is my personal view that all Americans have a responsibility to be politically aware because being able to ignore politics is a privilege. People's lives can be drastically be altered by certain laws being passed or certain policies being enforced. It is way easier for corruption and abuse of power to run rampant if the rest of us aren't paying attention. I think that responsibility becomes more and more prevalent with people who do have a platform and can reach many others, which successful artists often do. If you are not using your platform to better the world for the sake of personal gain, again that sends its own message.
At the end of the day though, artists ultimately need to be true to themselves and decide for themselves what is important. I am very political because I've always been very political. I recognize that's not the case for everyone, not everyone is as comfortable and as outspoken. So although I ultimately believe it's everyone's responsibility to pay attention and speak up, I don't think artists who aren't like me should feel obligated to speak on issues they don't understand yet. Maybe they do understand but their way of approaching it isn't the same as mine, and that's ok. You shouldn't try to be political just because you think it's what people want to hear. You should do it because you think it's the right thing to do.
Along the way there have been people who have unfollowed me, or perhaps stopped listening to my music because I speak on politics. But for every one of those, there are more who praise me for it, who are proud of me for standing for something. The fans that love and support you for the real, unfiltered version of you are the ones you should be after anyway.
In June of 2016, thirteen years after that infamous moment, I was finally able to see my favorite band on tour. In fact, I wanted to go so badly I took the train from Nebraska to Illinois in order to make it happen. They sounded just as good, if not better than they did years ago. This July, they will be releasing their new album GasLighter and another tour will follow.
If you are a music fan, I hope this post has helped you better understand why artists like myself choose to be politically active. If you are my fan, I want to thank you for supporting me the way I am. If you are an aspiring artist wondering how to navigate a world in which music and politics coexist, I hope my story can help you in your journey. At the end of the day, it all comes down to being yourself and using your voice in whatever way you see fit.