Photo: Beyoncé in the H&M ad for which she famously refused to be airbrushed. But why didn’t she speak out about the retailer’s Bangladeshi tragedy? Image © H&M
The other day, artist manager Emily Gonneau wrote this midemblog guest post, asking whether music biggest stars had lost the nerve to speak out about big issues. It inspired this reponse post from music journalist Kira Grunenberg, which we very much encourage you to take the time to read… before checking out Gonneau’s response.
First of all, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write a response post to mine. The fact that artists are decreasingly the voice of their generation and the idea that the music industry is probably greatly responsible for this is something that has been gnawing at me for some time now. Your very valid answer raises specific points I chose not to develop more in my initial post as it would have been too lengthy to read and risked diluting my point. Regardless, here are a few elements that, I hope, will help clarify any misunderstandings.
I found it interesting that from the opening of your response letter you illustrated your point of view with the example of an artist who apparently chose to “neutralise” his music so as to fit his primary (geographical) market. This is exactly the point I raised in my initial article: why do artists today feel that they should amend and dilute their message because it may threaten their financial success? Why do they believe that being popular means being consensual and where did this prevalent message take root?
On the topic of Beyoncé and H&M, my point was not that high profile artists should use their fame and wealth to go all humanitarian or political to alleviate any feelings of guilt linked to their success. Of course artists should not have to make a statement (or have an opinion, for that matter) about every disaster that happens in the world, especially when they have no connection to it. However, I don’t remember suggesting artists should be declassified as hip or underground the day they make it big, meaning they are not legitimate to talk about certain issues anymore. (Funnily enough, a lot of artists tend to interiorise this idea of their own initiative and spend a lot of time justifying themselves about it already.)
The reason I gave Beyoncé as an example was that the timing and scale of contrasting tragedy and selfishness on display was a perfect illustration of the problem: the textile factories in Bangladesh collapsed because the western clothing brands (H&M included) had systematically refused to spend any money on securing their production facilities. I was reading about this when a bus drove past me placated with a huge H&M advert for their latest summer bathing suit collection… featuring Beyoncé. This triggered many many questions: how much did H&M spend on that media campaign? How much did Beyoncé get paid to do it? Comparing that cost with that of renovating their factories aside, how come Beyoncé never made a single statement on this tragic state of affairs while being vocal about how the brand wanted to airbrush her curves? Even if she couldn’t because of her contract with the clothing brand, was she also forbidden to negotiate behind closed doors to instigate changes? Was she too wrapped up in herself to issue a simple word of compassion and solidarity towards the dead workers and their families? Did she ever offer to donate a fraction of a fraction of what she was paid for that campaign or of her monthly/yearly revenue towards a special foundation dedicated to helping the dead workers families? Sadly, she never did anything of the sort. Beyoncé had power but she remained silent. No message, no support. No concerns voiced, not even a whisper. The business model she represents as a singer (and a brand) was to be shielded at all costs.
On the topic of Justin Bieber, I’ll hand it over to you: of course, the media are superficial (as you may remember, I had pointed this out in my article) and of course, the issue was not a priority in his own life and at the tender age of 16 at the time (sorry for taking his age into consideration again here), I sincerely hope he had not yet been confronted to this dilemma (of rape even in case of abortion, which was the full topic discussed in the Rolling Stone interview).
To set the record straight, I have absolutely nothing against young people (oh my, do I already come across as that old?!): rather the contrary. You may have read the inspiring article I linked to in my initial post. It is written by Michael Kulick, a 20-something year old saying that his generation may seem futile but is also more grounded than ever. His own personal philosophy is just beautiful, by the way…
Coming back to Bieber, he really is a very interesting case study as he is typical of the recurring North-American mainstream popstar attitude to the rest of the world: all other markets are accessible because everyone is supposed to understand English and all countries and cultures outside of the US and Canada are folkloric interchangeable background settings that are only taken into account according to North American standards.
He also perfectly personifies this fascinating type of well-intentioned unabashed self-centeredness: his Rolling Stone interview is paradoxically the one where he can be most excused in terms of context. There are many other examples to choose from. Does his recent note in the Golden Book of the Anne Frank House (that “hopefully [Anne Frank] would have been a belieber”) need to be addressed in any more detail? (please “Belieb” me, he really did say that…)
In your post, you make a very good point of the fact that any backlash today is exponentially amplified by social media. Absolutely. And, may I add, on an unprecedented scale. But then again, so is a positive outcome. Is there a reason social media should be seen more as a risk than an opportunity? Indeed, artists previously did not have social media, but the upside was that they had to think strong and hard about what they wanted to say, sharpen their (s)words until it was perfect as they only had a shot or two to get it out there.
When you say that social media allows a negative or positive message’s impact to far outlast that of the same message pre-social media, I’m not so sure. Are we talking about staying power technically speaking (screen copies, Google cache meaning you can find all information for ever) or psychologically speaking, in the sense of staying power for the masses?
When Eric Schmidt said ‘back in’ 2010 that “Every two days […] we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003” — and this must be more now — how does any artist and/or message today not get drowned in the flood of news, and what can we expect to remain relevant in time? This brings us back to one of my initial questions: what will these new mainstream artists be remembered for? Why are so many aspiring artists today obliged to make a choice as early as when they are barely starting out between what they want to say and how they have to say it because of who they are talking to?
As an industry, we are failing artists because we are shelving them with the responsibility of becoming their own marketers, research analysts, salesmen and women on top on having already asked them to morph into entrepreneurs if they wanted to “make it” in the music industry. In my humble opinion, the debate isn’t really about if they can/should or can’t/shouldn’t do it all. What I want to know is at exactly what moment does an artist stop being an artist because the marketer / investor / entrepreneur in him or her has taken over and vetoed a song or lyric they had just written?
I won’t digress long about your example of Kid Pop. For sure, there is a lot of hypocrisy when song lyrics are censored to protect young ears but music videos full of sexual innuendo and often showcasing women as flower pots in the background at best are allowed, leaving young eyes unprotected. Nonetheless, I don’t recall having ever said or even implied that music should be political at all times and especially when composed and written for children.
A point which you quickly mention that I should have detailed more is the question of the many artists fighting for causes today. You are quite right. There are a great many artists performing for charity and using their fame and visibility to promote noble causes. But I focused my article on the “message” rather than the type of causes artists tend to defend for a simple reason: the whole process is increasingly ambiguous. You may have noticed these causes are generally unanimous ones like fighting different types of illnesses (cancer, telethon, aids, etc…) and funding punctual disaster relief (Katrina, the 2004 tsunami and many more). This is all very necessary and highly commendable. I can only rejoice in the fact that so many artists are helping out and do care.
Should we nonetheless become indulgent to the point we do not acknowledge how incredibly politically correct these causes have all become? Looking at the matter more closely, there is no stigma attached to these causes and no question about the necessity to act. Of course we should unite to help disaster-stricken populations and combat illness and poverty.
But why do some artists feel the need to create a foundation in their name and start from scratch rather than join a big organisation with a longstanding reputation of getting the the job done already? Why do superstars like Bono parade in State-attended forums and avoid paying taxes in his own country at a time when an austerity plan is putting incredible pressure on the whole population?
Bottom line: when does an artist decide to write a song for a cause and when does an artist decide to write a song about a cause (with the (in)direct benefit of his/her self-promotion)?
All I am saying is that artists should feel free to write and compose the music they want, be they political or not, as long as this does not exclusively narrow down their options to writing and composing songs with commercial potential. Artists who decide to go down that path for the money are in a optimal place and time for that today, and good for them. But it saddens me to a point you cannot imagine to see artists limit themselves to songs with commercial outcome because of this prevalent notion that political personal messages are not tolerated and actively discouraged by their potential fans and the music industry.
If the music industry, our industry, wants to survive, it has to delve deep into the last shreds of its collective psyche and make the effort of acknowledging, as painful as it may be, that continuing down the narrowing path of commercially minded music is not art anymore. Or the thinking, breathing and fighting will be done by other types of artists (painters, writers, sculptors, designers, choreographers, etc…) and basically anyone in civil society who values ideals over money, really. Yes, “it’s an industry, baby”. But I’m not saying that’s bad or that money is wrong. I’m saying it should not be the only measurement of success. What is at stake here is quite simple: as an industry, we are single-handedly exposing ourselves to becoming lastingly irrelevant for the generations to come because the only value we all tick along to is profit and ROI. But how very far removed from the art of writing a song.
“Money you’ve got to make
It’ll make you do thing you never would
Give up the things that make you feel so good
Money’ll make a man forsake his country
And lie to his wife, turn friends to foes,
Put a price on a man’s soul
Bite your lip, don’t say a thing
Gonna keep on sayin’ ‘money is king’
Right or wrong, it don’t mean a thing
It’s a sad, sad world when money is king
They say that money will change, will change you,
Oh I see the most righteous man do unspeakable things
Just to have a half a dollar feel on the palm of his hand
It’s a cryin’ shame, it’s the world we’re in, where money is king”
Lee Fields and the Expressions, “When money i$ king” (YouTube)
Since Emily wrote the above text, it’s interesting to note that Mos Def/Yasiin Bey put himself through Guantanamo Bay-style force feeding, further underlining the gap between artists who speak out, and those who don’t…
Emily Gonneau is the manager artists like Emilie Chick, and a consultant for OK Go. Read all of her midemblog posts – including our most-shared ever post! – here. You can follow Gonneau’s company, Unicum Music, on Twitter& check out its website here.