Student journalist and Reno-based musician Nick Eng recently took part in an event called Vibe and Vote. He gives a historical perspective on the important involvement of musicians through the years in the US democratic process.
Photo of Nick Eng provided by sasssophoto from the Oct. 12 Vibe and Vote event, which included a free concert at the Saint in downtown Reno.
Vibing to get People to Vote
One of the driving forces during the 2018 midterm election cycle has been the push to get young adults more active in politics and the voting process. Different groups in Nevada have been working hard to create fun and engaging local events in an effort to get young voters out to vote on Nov. 6.
One of those events was Vibe and Vote, and it was an absolutely blast.
I myself am no stranger to the growing and colorful music scene of our Biggest Little City. I’m a proud working musician, playing at any of Reno’s venues with my band, and as a solo act, and I’m very grateful. I was especially honored when I was asked to play at Vibe and Vote.
The promotional poster for the event.
Intertwining Music and Politics
Vibe and Vote, a public event funded by the Children’s Advocacy Alliance of Nevada, was an energizing evening that showcased local musicians and advocated for voting and election education.
My band and I (in trio format for that night) were one of six featured acts selected to headline and get a good crowd in the door. The place was packed, and every act was treated to a warm and tipsy reception of people of all ages (21+ of course).
But as we played and partied down with a group of folks from all different musical tastes, personal beliefs, and ethnic backgrounds, it dawned on me how intertwined music and politics are in a society: and that’s a good thing.
Music and politics are both deeply rooted within America’s culture and society. We have our favorite musicians and our favorite politicians. We gravitate toward certain musical genres and support certain political stances. Our given musical and political opinions and tastes help us to define who our friends and peer groups are or will be.
Woody Guthrie is certainly the father of the modern protest song. Before Guthrie (whose guitar bore the now famous slogan, “this machine kills fascists” decal) pop music wasn’t used openly used as an outlet for the writer’s world views, but his throaty folk style would plant the seeds for political commentary in music for decades to come.
The Modern Protest Song
But most importantly, both music and politics have the ability to reach a large number of demographics across the nation, especially young adults. Music and politics both provide the masses with commentary on the status of the current time. Music addresses topics ranging from the social to the economic. So-called ‘protest songs’ have become the golden standard for any tune that carries a serious message about our nation’s political state. But where did it all begin?
The 1960s was perhaps the biggest decade for music and politics. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the emerging counterculture all commingled with the artistic surge fueled by the music of the British Invasion, Motown, and the Hippie movement. Music marketed towards Baby Boomer teens as a pure product turned into their own unique voice that gave many young Americans their first insights into the political world at home and abroad.
From Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin to Today
Bob Dylan pioneered himself as the folk troubadour commentator with songs like The Times They Are A Changin’ and Like A Rolling Stone. The Beatles gave us searing societal commentary in the song Revolution as well as the tender and reflective Blackbird, written as a hopeful ode to African Americans suffering in the American South.
Aretha Franklin belted Respect which remains an anthemic political statement advocating for women’s rights and societal equality. Creedence Clearwater Revival slammed the draft and U.S. involvement in Vietnam with Fortunate Son. Cleary, lots of songs were about politics in the ’60s, and it’s a tradition that has continued in mainstream music ever since.
The continued involvement of young adults in politics during the 1960s eventually led to the lowering of the voting age in 1971 from 21 to 18. Young adults were participating in civics more than ever. And the political music continued as well.
The ’70s saw (and heard) the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs like Ohio, written in response to the Kent State shooting. Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman is an example of women’s liberation in popular music.
The 1980s created a dwindling horizon for many. In the era of AIDS and Reaganomics, many found themselves sipping through the cracks of society as the better world that was promised to the young adults of the ’60s and ’70s (now middle-aged) seemed to be slipping farther and farther away.
Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A both critiqued the treatment of Vietnam veterans during the ’80s, as many of them were having troubled integrating back into a normal life. Nearing the end of the decade, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror was released, giving listeners a more reflective and helpful approach to the issues facing the public.
Hip Hop Takes the Current Mantle Since 1990s
Hip-Hop and rap have taken the spotlight since the 1990s, and from its beginnings the genre was full of political statements. Public Enemy’s Burn Hollywood Burn is a commentary on the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in the media. Fast forward to 2018, and we get Childish Gambino with This Is America which took the world by storm with its many references to police brutality, Jim Crow laws, and racial tensions in the United States.
Five decades of political music have given younger generations exposure to real-world issues through an enjoyable medium. When streaming a song or going to a concert, people come for the music, and might leave with something to think about. Music and politics go hand-in-hand, and you might be surprised where you find the connection if you stop and look around. I found it at Vibe and Vote, and you can find it somewhere too.
Reporting by Nick Eng for the Reynolds Sandbox