New religious freedom laws in North Carolina and Mississippi, and pending legislation in Tennessee, has the South and the United States in an uproar over religious and civil liberties in an already contentious political season. And all of a sudden, music, and country music specifically, is getting caught in the crossfire.
When Bruce Springsteen announced he was canceling a North Carolina show scheduled for Sunday (4-10), it put music dead center in the political fight over LGBT rights. Other high-profile artists such as Bryan Adams have canceled shows as well, and all of a sudden musicians are being asked to choose sides and make tough decisions in a fight that’s not theirs, and that could put them at odds with their fans, other artists, the industry, and the aspirations of their careers.
“To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress,” Bruce Springsteen said about the North Carolina law in a statement. “Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th.”
Bruce Springsteen was taking a personal stand based upon his beliefs, and whether you agree with his stance or the effectiveness of his action, he was asserting his freedom as an American to do as he chooses. However, one of the unintended consequences of his action was to all of a sudden put other artists in the precarious position of being asked to cancel their shows in North Carolina and Mississippi, and soon possibly Tennessee, or risk being labeled as part of the problem or breaking the boycott, when making music is these artists’ livelihood, most musicians have nothing to do with the new religious freedom legislation, and losing revenue and routing conflicts could cause touring musicians significant financial direst in an already tough industry.
The pressure on many country musicians was ratcheted up even more on Monday (4-11), when GLADD put out a call to the music industry in Nashville to oppose the new legislation.
“There is no doubt that these anti-LGBT bills will jeopardize this state’s economy,” GLAAD president & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said at a press conference in Nashville. “Nashville is America’s music capital, and the companies, artists, and allied businesses here alone contribute more than $9.7 billion dollars to this state’s economy. I am here today to call on the music industry to stand with us.”
Implied in the statement is that if the Nashville music industry threatens to leave the state, and the artists who live and work in the city refuse to play, then this would put pressure on the state government to reconsider the pending legislation. Or, it could also be seen as a threat towards that Nashville music industry that if it does not oppose the legislation, a boycott could be brought against them, hurting the bottom lines of an industry already dealing with declining revenue.
But not everyone sees it the same way as GLAAD, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams.
Rhiannon Giddens, a North Carolinian, an African American roots singer, and the founding member of the old time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, says she’s not participating in the North Carolina boycott. While Giddens has been outspoken on political subjects previously, she’s taking a different stance when it comes to the issue of boycotting states with religious freedom laws.
“I’m not canceling my show in Greensboro. Or Asheville. Or Charlotte,” Rhiannon Giddens said on April 8th in the aftermath of the Springsteen announcement. “I’m a North Carolinian & I believe in fighting from within.”
Brandi Carlile is an openly-gay country and roots rocker originally from Washington State, who also happens to be married to her partner of four years through a legal license issued in Massachusetts. She is also not participating in the North Carolina boycott. Recently on social network, she addressed the issue by first praising Bruce Springsteen’s efforts.
“Bruce has decided on principal not to go through with his concert because of thinly veiled legislation having been passed that permits the discrimination of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in NC,” Brandi said on Sunday. “I deeply appreciate this, and I want to say on my own behalf thank you for doing what you’re doing guys … As artists it’s our responsibility to take cause against those who would oppress our brothers and sisters and defend them using whatever power we possess.”
Then Brandi went on to explain why she would not be participating in the boycott herself. Like Rhiannon Giddens, Carlile has North Carolina shows currently on her schedule.
“I’m a small artist, and I’m gay, many of my fans are gay as well,” Brandi says. “To cancel my shows in NC would further oppress my fans who are hurt by this legislation, who worked hard to suppress it, and who need a place where they can come together. That’s why we intend to be in Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Asheville, and Greensboro this summer. We’re going to come together, let our voices be heard, not stand down, and make a joyful noise in the face of this insult of a law.”
Cyndi Lauper, who has been previously called a “gay icon,” has worked actively on many LGBT issues, and happens to also be putting out an album of classic country songs later this year, also agrees that asking music artists to boycott North Carolina and other states is wrong.
“I’ll be playing North Carolina. I think people need us there,” Lauper said. “Wherever there’s a shutout, wherever there’s people who don’t accept other people, the other people need you.”
Regardless of what happens with Tennessee’s religious freedom law, country music is not going anywhere. The deep rooted ties to Nashville go back generations, and the institutions of the genre are immovable. Any and all boycotts would be more symbolic than substantive or effective, and will only ask artists choose between two negative outcomes that ultimately may have little effect on these religious freedom laws.
Furthermore, music is a form of creative expression. This is not the healthcare industry, which happens to also have a huge footprint in Nashville, or finance and banking which has a major stake in North Carolina. Music is one of the elements of society that can unite individuals regardless of creed, religion, or sexual orientation. The creative expression of music helps spread the message of inclusiveness naturally, and threatening to stymie that process is shortsighted.
Country music specifically has made great strides towards being more inclusive to the LGBT community in the last few years, including with artists such as Brandi Carlile, and Brandy Clark, the coming out of Ty Herndon, and the recognition to Kacey Musgraves’ song “Follow Your Arrow.” But one of the reasons these artists and these moments have been so effective in the realm of country music is because they happened organically, not with ultimatums and threats to attempt to coerce people into being more inclusive. Artists like Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile are musicians and artists first. They’re not publishing protest songs, they’re just being themselves, and their talent and universal insight into the human condition is why the country music community embraced them with open arms. That’s the power of music, and threatening boycott is threatening to take that power away.
Let’s not put musicians in the precarious position of having to choose between making a livelihood, playing music, or going against their political principles. Boycott whichever other industries you choose if you’re so inclined, but leave music and other creative industries out of the picture. If you want to see inclusiveness continue to spread, you should support artistic expression in all of its forms.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Please keep all comments germane to the subject of MUSIC and how it interfaces with these new and proposed religious freedom laws. Strict political reactionism to the laws themselves, or ANY instances of name-calling or insult will be moderated.
Saving Country Music takes the stance of avoiding political controversies or taking political positions because it interferes with the joy of music. Subjects of a political nature are only broached when they veer directly into the path of music to the point of being unavoidable. The boycotts of North Carolina and Mississippi, and the threatened boycott of Tennessee are veering into the unavoidable in a big way, potentially affecting the livelihoods of the musicians who work and live in these states.