“We are all the same. There is no difference anywhere in the world. People are people. They laugh, cry, feel, and love, and music seems to be the common denominator that brings us all together. Music cuts through all boundaries and goes right to the soul.”
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Sage words of wisdom from one of music’s most iconic figures, and a man who is recognized as a one of the world’s greatest pacifists. But unfortunately the era of listening to music for its universal appeal, or celebrating it for its power to bridge our differences is over, regardless of what style of music you’re speaking of. So is the practice of evaluating music based upon its own merit for things such as composition, originality, skill, or even infectiousness and overall appeal. Enter the new era where music for many is nothing more than a social tool used to tribalize and fracture individuals based on group identity, with the ‘who’ being the most important element to a song, album, or performance, not the ‘what.’
We’re seeing this pernicious trend sprouting up all over the place in popular culture. Often the media chooses to cover certain musical artists simply due to their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or political stances, sometimes prefacing that coverage with positioning statements and identifiers even before the name of the artist or the subject matter being discussed is mentioned. Some in the media even use identity as a litmus test on whether they choose to cover certain artists at all, or choose to cover them in a favorable or unfavorable manner. Often in these features and interviews, music isn’t even broached, and instead the discussion centers on social issues and identity narratives. Where before we were taught to look beyond factors such as race, sex, and sexual orientation, now it’s often the primary focus.
Similarly, performers are now actively courting tribes of individuals more than ever, and those tribes are coagulating around certain artists with an allegiance rarely seen before. The music itself is simply the excuse to draw attention to the celebrity and their public persona, and is almost superfluous in the equation. The ultimate outcome of this exercise is the further polarizing of society and the entrenching of ideals. This is the exact opposite result than most of popular music in previous generations pursued and achieved, and is against the ideals that artists like Willie Nelson and his peers espoused in previous eras.
Most certainly diversity and equality should be yearned for in music, and everyone—from fans, to the media, to the music industry and the artists themselves—should make sure that things such as race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifying factor never inhibit an artist from having their music judged equitably in the marketplace, and rising to its utmost potential. For years this wasn’t always the case, resulting in an understandable emphasis upon making sure performers of certain minority or marginalized groups were given equal footing in their pursuits.
But this new identity movement is something entirely different. Not only is it about purposely gerrymandering the systems to actively push artists exclusively based off of their group identity or their professed grievances with society irrespective of the efficacy or appeal of their music, but this same movement is actively looking to use music as a tool to wedge people apart, and even to incite rage, with the results at times being violence pouring over from social media and musical fandom into the real world. Where before music was seen as an agent for peace, now it is being outright weaponized in the raging identity war.
As music writer Tim Sommer asserted in a recent essay called Why Music Can’t Be Beat as a Shaper of Identity, “We are at war. Deep down you know this. Who will lead our army? I do very much believe in music’s ability to be a locus for identity, a pin on the map of who we are and what we believe in. And identity has the ability to incite rage. Identity has the ability to invite enemies and attract friends. Identity has the ability to provide comfort and shelter.”
One focus Tim Sommer’s essay is to point out how music often gives a home to the marginalized and forgotten who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else. It’s shelter to those pushed to the fringes of society—the freaks and geeks of the school cafeteria so to speak, or as the essay says, “[Music] welcomed us when we were lonely, bullied, frightened, chased, and harassed, and it said, you are now one of us.”
In this case, music can most certainly offer a community and a sense of belonging that popular society withholds from many. But this gift imparted by music doesn’t have to result in the Balkanization of music culture as a whole based off assigned tribal identities. The power of music is to bring people together regardless of class or degree of conformity to societal norms. And though some of this rhetoric is (hopefully) symbolic, if not hyperbolic, the belligerence and parallel to violence we’ve seen from many sources in how they speak about music in 2019 is outright alarming.
“Music may still be the greatest and most dramatic way to establish identity,” Tim Sommer’s essay continues. “And we can fight with identity, nearly as surely—and more pervasively—as we can fight with bullets. The frontline of this war is identity. And the doorway to identity is music.”
Along with the violent parallels is the encouragement to build tribes as opposed to work to resolve them. The fracturing into separate groups is counter-intuitive to the coming together often promoted in the songs of the folk revival of the 50’s to the counterculture revolution of the 60’s. The essay goes on to say,
“If you identify, either by birth or choice, as anything other than a heterosexual white male, you are under attack as you have been at no time in the last fifty years. Maybe the battle is not yet on your doorstep—or maybe it is. In any event, I guarantee it will be soon. You can pretend otherwise, but you are fooling yourself. I promise you this: At this moment, the core aspects of identity of you or someone you love is under assault.”
As a matter of statistical certitude, this statement that non-white males are under assault more than at any time in the last 50 years is completely untrue. Through the work of individuals such as Harvard Professor Steven Pinker and scores of other statisticians and crime experts, including leading work from the Pew Research Center, our current society has been proven to be unequivocally safer, less violent—including towards women and minorities—and more open to opportunity than in any other time in the history of Western society.
Notions about the civil liberties of of individuals being under greater assault than ever before in the last 50 years is simply a construct of the media focusing on sensationalized stories and anecdotal evidence which often works to further tribalize society, and on purpose. That’s not to say there isn’t serious levels of prejudice and injustice still pervading American and Western society. But it exists in lower levels than it has ever been before, with strong consensus behind these conclusions. It’s often the media attempting to hold on to dying business models which emphasizes the tribal warfare occurring in society for the heightened attentiveness it delivers to their respective outlets. These anecdotal stories and bias coverage is often amplified in social media echo chambers, where individuals isolate themselves from being exposed to ideas an perspectives counterintuitive to their own—a further pernicious trend of tribalization.
Furthermore, with things such as the legalizing of gay marriage in the United States in 2015, the passing of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, along with hosts of other civil rights statutes from the Federal to the local level—along with similar statutes being instituted throughout Western societies—it’s impossible to look at modern society as worse off today than it was at any other time in the last 50 years for minorities, marginalized populations, or anyone else in 1st world countries.
However one alarming trend against the positive backdrop of lowering crime statistics has been the indisputable increase in race-based violence in the near term on both sides of the political spectrum, from white supremacist groups on the right, to anti Jewish groups which straddle political ideology, to groups such as ANTIFA on the left. Granted, these violent acts are still minuscule as a statistical likelihood that an individual may suffer a race-based or political-based crime compared to previous eras, and are exacerbated once again by sensationalized and myopically-focused media coverage that benefits from tribalizing groups of individuals and pitting them against each other. But the numbers on the violence and discrimination throughout society are increasing, just as the calls are being increased to further tribalize society, including through music.
Tribalization doesn’t happen in a bubble. If you call for groups of individuals to band up based upon race, gender identity, marginalization, etc., a similar counterbalance will often sprout up on the other side of society. Calling for the marginalization of white males has in turn led to the increase of tribalism among them. And as rhetoric has ratcheted up, so has actual violence, as well as virtual violence online. One reason virtual violence has turned into actual violence is due to the pervasiveness of polarization throughout society. Where before polarizing rhetoric was mostly isolated to the political realm, now it has spilled over to movies and television, sports, advertisement, and music especially.
Meanwhile the rise in tribalism in music has paralleled a similar rise in the Stan culture—or individuals who go well past regularly-ascribed fandom to outright identifying their personality with the public personas of music stars, facilitated by the access and intimacy fans are able to forge with their favorite artists via social media. This has become especially pervasive in the LBGTQ community, with fans being told to specifically Stan for artists solely based on identity. An example would be an article like 9 LGBTQ-Affirming Country Musicians to Stan Instead of Shania Twain.
“Stan” is a song by rap artist Eminem released in 2000 about an unhinged superfan who begins to emulate Eminem so closely, he becomes delusional and violent to himself and others. Of course commanding fans to become Stans has a bit of the same hyperbole in it as comparing songs to bullets, but individuals immersed in the delusion of the Stan culture may not be able to tell the difference. The prevalence and immersion of social media has paralleled a rise in this Stan culture, with legions of fans acting as lock-step emissaries for their favorite artists—often with their avatars and subject matter solely being about these superstars in often unhealthy aberrations of reality. Furthermore, many of these Stans have infiltrated popular music journalism, and actively advocate for their favorite artists, or for their tribe’s causes in a complete lack of journalistic ethics, sometimes even gloating about this bias approach, either in the content of their articles or via social media.
The opinions shared in articles such as Why Music Can’t Be Beat as a Shaper of Identity or 9 LGBTQ-Affirming Country Musicians to Stan Instead of Shania Twain are not the work of isolated renegade writers. They’re full of sentiments that many, if not most music journalists hold, and employ when it comes to their decision on who to cover in music, and how. In fact if you choose to offer spirited dissent to this tribalization of music, you’re likely to be the one ostracized in the music journalism industry, risk running being labeled racist and/or homophobic, and ironically, find yourself in the same fate as those geeks looking for someone to sit with at the school Cafeteria table.
But it should be an imperative of all music professionals that the institution of music and its unique ability for generations to bring people together should not be infringed. That’s not to gloss over that in certain segments of society, music has always been an outlet or a catalyst for rage, or the speaking out against injustice. This was most certainly the founding principles behind punk music, certain elements of folk, as well as reggae, hip-hop, and even country music in the way it has spoken to the plight of the blue collar worker and the family farmer for decades.
But actively working to tribalize the institution of music as a whole down lines of race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or creed, shouldn’t be celebrated by the media, fans, and musical institutions. It should be resisted. Author Tim Sommer of “Why Music Can’t Be Beat as a Shaper of Identity” very well may be right. We may be at war, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. But music should not be a weapon in it. It should be the tool employed to help resolve it.
Right now music is incapable for being a catalyst for change, because for every tribe attempting to employ music to resolve some social injustice, there’s another using it to dog their efforts and assert their own ideologies. The result is even issues there is consensus behind going unresolved, while enemies of open and liberal Western societies gain advantage from the infighting as we saw with Russia’s deployment of tribalism and misinformation through social media during the last Presidential election in the United States, and in the Brexit debate in Britain.
Like Willie Nelson said, music has the unique ability to breed the understanding that we all “laugh, cry, feel, and love.” And as soon as we all get to understanding this, the sooner tribalism and it’s fracturing of purpose where we’re constantly fighting with each other can cease, and we can all start working to resolve the underlying issues plaguing society together.