A survey of several artists on how they consider political issues in songwriting
The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been passed down in different forms for centuries, from the Bible to the Koran to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.”
But is it? Do people like Woody Guthrie do more to inspire the masses with music than governments or political machines?
The potential certainly exists—especially here in Tulsa where many artists use social issues and politics in their own songwriting and performances to inspire critical thinking. Musicians, artists, and poets can often influence minds more than any lawyer, politician or government official.
I approached a handful of Tulsa musicians from various genres to find out how they consider political issues in their own songwriting, if at all.
Punk/Rock and Roll
I sat down with Michael Williams of The Agony Scene and Merlin Mason at Phoenix Coffee House. Williams is currently writing lyrics for the new Agony Scene record and says there are no “blatant politics” in his writing, but he does speak about “people in power who stand in the way of social progress.”
“[Punk rock] is a social movement within music that eludes the social pressures the world puts on you to hinder the pursuit of being happy,” Williams said.
That explanation sounds a lot like “freedom,” something of which Williams agrees politics could use more.
Politics could also use more empathy, meaning the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
“I think it’s an artist’s duty to present art or music as a mirror for society … art is about empathy,” said Penny Hill, bassist for Broncho and founding member of Labrys. “It’s about feeling while we walk through life ... I have certainly written with social and political issues in mind.
“People like Woody Guthrie,” Hill continued, “used very straight forward language and those songs have withstood the test of time. They remain relevant because the same shit is always happening—the fortunate ignoring the unfortunate, the fight of the underdog. These themes will always remain.”
Joe Myside of Society Society, Streetlight Fight and Joe Myside And The Sorrow, takes an ambiguous approach to politics in his songwriting, but is more explicit when performing live. “[I’m more prone] to say something onstage when something is fucked, whether it be right in front of me or it be something I read in the news,” Myside said. But offstage, he stays diplomatic, “especially while on 10 hour road trips,” and respects the sometimes differing beliefs of his various bandmates.
From its inception, hip-hop was political: first as a way to settle disputes with words instead of violence, and then to reflect the socioeconomic hardships and injustices of inner city black communities.
“[Hip-hop and punk rock] are both about unity within communities and they’re both about doing things different in reaction to the social issues, injustices and politics around them,” said local MC Mr. Burns, aka Earl Hazard. “People uniting is a threat to the powers that be.”
Derek Clark, aka Verse of Oilhouse, shares these sentiments.
“I incorporate social issues or commentary in my music because of the historical significance of politically charged or ‘conscious’ hip hop,” he said. “And the fact that the artists who inspired me the most were the ones who talked about shit that mattered.”
“Words backed by music can either make people extremely aware of issues happening in our society, or take the listener’s mind off of it for a brief moment,” said Branjae Jackson, who fronts the funk/Afrobeat band Count Tutu. “Either way, I am delighted that music chose me to offer this creative outlet to help enlighten and/or distract from a hurting and unfair world.”
Cody Clinton of the husband/wife duo Desi and Cody says he “codes in politics” on occasion.
“[But] everything I write is esoteric,” Clinton said. “Sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about specifically until it’s almost finished.” As an example, he pointed to the Desi and Cody song “Everyone’s On Our Side,” which seems like a love song but is more about “questioning blind allegiance to anything, not just politics.”
Country troubadour Wink Burcham recently wrote his first protest song. “It’s an anti-political political song,” Burcham said. “While it protests politicians in general, it protests both sides as well … I don’t typically write political, but this particular campaign just rubs me wrong, ya know?
“I’d like to think if people hear a song that they agree with and identify with they can channel their thoughts into that song rather than act out on them. Music saves lives one way or another.”
For more from Ty, read his case for Spotify.