Separating music from politics is a farce

An aversion to politics talk causes a Madison musicians Facebook group to implode.

An aversion to politics talk causes a Madison musicians Facebook group to implode.

Illustration by Shaun Soman.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

This past weekend an administrator of the Madison Musicians Facebook group posted a declaration: Any talk of politics inside the group would lead to members being banned. The group hosts just over 2,600 members and has been around since 2013. Being a person who a) believe that music and politics are never separable 2) lives for internet drama, I joined the group and posted the following statement: 

“Banning people who talk about politics in a music based Facebook group is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Music is one of the most political things that exists. Your rock n roll idols such as Bruce or Johnny Cash would spit at the idea of keeping politics out of music. Sell your gear and donate it to a bail fund. Peace sign emoji.”

I lasted about 17 minutes in the group before getting banned myself. (A bandmate of mine started a new Facebook group, named in mocking honor of the aforementioned admin.) If you are a musician in Madison, you should highly consider distancing yourself from groups, bands, venues, and promoters that reduce the profound struggles of the current moment to a mere annoyance labeled “politics.” It’s not worth your time and energy to navigate around people who act like music, let alone the Madison music community, exists in some apolitical vacuum. Engaging in political issues as a musician is a worthy endeavor, and some fandoms harness real power. We also know that music and the arts intersect in many complex ways with everything else local government does.

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The Black Lives Matter movement across the nation and the protests in Madison pose a simple moral question: Do you believe that your Black neighbors should have the same rights and opportunities that you do? If that question ruffles feathers in a stagnant group of rock ‘n’ rollers, then so be it. You need to be asking yourself if you’d share the stage with people who help themselves to the legacy of Black music but won’t reflect on their own white privilege.  

In the age of COVID-19, we all desperately need community and connection. If you are a musician or frequent show-goer, then the lack of live events has you relying more heavily than ever on online interactions to fill that gap. Facebook groups have a tendency to become hotbeds for nonsense and hyper-vigilant paranoid behavior, as do other localized online communities. Before Coronavirus, Madisonians couldn’t even get themselves together enough to not hurl digital feces at each other in debates about ice cream. How are we supposed to create a space for artists and musicians to thrive, and to grapple thoughtfully with the political context of their work, in a time of distance? 

I’m not the best example, truthfully. I’ve tried to contribute to the conversation in other ways, including putting together a mutual-aid benefit compilation. But in this case, I popped into a group I hadn’t heard of, tried to score some internet points, and got booted. A different approach would be to sit in the group, educate people about the myriad ways in which silence around these issues is a violent act, and hope for the best. The final option would be to avoid all online interactions, delete your account, and jump into the sea. 

Lurking on the different Madison Facebook groups shows a lot of resources for live streaming, people recruiting for new band members (seems like a weird time for it, yeah?), economic relief for people who’ve lost live-event income, and bad memes. It’s easy to not ask a lot of the Facebook groups you are in, because you shouldn’t expect a whole lot out of social media. 

The easy thing to do is to avoid the conversation and keep trying to sell your dusty gear. The easy thing to do is to act a fool for some non-refundable internet points. The best thing you can do is look inward and ask your own circles what, if anything, they are doing to support a movement that is moving beyond mere “politics” and creating real change. There are plenty of Madison musicians who are looking to do the work of allowing politics and music to fruitfully mix. If you find yourself stuck in groups that aren’t engaging in those things, maybe it’s time to give your digital circle a peace sign emoji and head for greener pastures.

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