The connection between music, film and politics is alive and stronger than ever in the wake of David Bowie's death and protests over the monochrome Oscar nominations.
The connection between music, film and politics is alive and stronger than ever in the wake of David Bowie’s death and protests over the monochrome Oscar nominations. Many forget that David Bowie’s broad pop appeal showed only one side of a man whose music was often strikingly political. Were he still alive (RIP Ziggy), he would recognise the same problem with this year’s Oscar nominations that he saw in the early MTV.
Just as Spotify generates debate and argument over how we access music in the 2010s, MTV did the same for the early 1980s. Providing a constant stream of videos was, of course, a big hit when most consumers needed a bulky record player set-up to listen to music, and the occasional viewing of TOTP / OGWT* on TV to provide more audiovisual excitement.
*Top Of The Pops and its equally important but musically superior BBC counterpart, the Old Grey Whistle Test
David Bowie benefited hugely from visual appearances; little surprise for an androgynous red-headed alien. His performance of Starman on TOTP was a key part of his early success, but it turns out that at the height of his power in the early-mid 80s, he knew that MTV was filling itself with more white rock groups than black funk, soul or (then emergent) hip-hop groups, especially the latter. Innovative as they were, they were sidelined from the mainstream increasingly dictated by MTV.
This appeasement of middle America didn’t help anyone. Just as MTV’s Mark Goodman claimed they had to account for ‘some town in the Midwest… scared to death… by black music’, ground-breaking white groups like Joy Division were sidelined as too experimental or intellectual. The Red Hot Chili Peppers managed to piss people off at both ends, being seen as ‘white punks’ by African American labels and too funky (then the realm of black artists) by those of an MTV persuasion.
Bowie challenged them on that and he is to be congratulated for it as much as any of his wonderful music. Most importantly, he said that stations and channels (like MTV) have the responsibility to make media more integrated: they set the trends. Once established, they choose what everyone else watches. Good thing we made sure to integrate Hollywood, otherwise we’d only see white actors being nominated for the Oscars…
Negative publicity around the Academy Awards and their small selection committee has recently led to protests and boycotts by actors and actresses like Jada Pinkett Smith. The link between politics and entertainment is clearly not limited to music, and is not going away any time soon. The cultural politics of institutional racism have affected and continue to adversely affect the film and music industries.
Returning to the late, great Bowie, his video for smash hit ‘Let’s Dance’ was made only a year after his altercation with MTV (above). Putting his money where his mouth is, Bowie depicts an Australian aboriginal couple living a happy life despite references to nuclear weapons testing in the outback (1:17 in the video) and the menial jobs to which so many aborigines were/are subjected to.
Couple that with the contribution of ‘Heroes’ to bringing together both sides of a divided Berlin, it’s safe to say Bowie made as positive a contribution to politics as he did to music. The German Foreign Office even thanked him posthumously for his significant role in bringing down the Berlin Wall. He may not have taken a sledgehammer to Checkpoint Charlie, but Bowie showed both sides how little there was to separate them in a way few politicians could.
Whilst Bowie’s political actions have often gone unnoticed by his fans (as he didn’t publicise them heavily), the same cannot be said of U2. Leaving aside countless early political statements, the band’s broader commentaries have the advantage of shifting to cover new topics every time they perform. For example, if you hear Bullet the Blue Sky in its original incarnation, American foreign policy and grimy gambling culture get the rough end of the microphone. However, U2’s recent performance of the song in Paris managed to update the meaning to the most current of political issues – the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis. The song becomes both a rallying cry for refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas and a criticism of ambivalent European politicians. Singing through a megaphone painted with an EU flag is one thing – singing a snippet of ‘Ode to Joy’ (the EU anthem) only reinforces the most modern of political messages in U2’s music.
I’ll be the first to say Bono can be self-righteous in these contexts (and it can be annoying), but what matters is the link he creates between ‘dry’ policy, the deadly consequences of an ongoing war, and entertainment. Bowie knew how to strengthen these links and spent much of the 1980s doing so, and yet in 2016 modern episodes like the Oscars show no sign of providing ‘innocent’, apolitical entertainment.