The Grammy Awards which took place in New York on Sunday night are the biggest, blinged up night in the music industry on the planet. Many years ago, I was lucky enough to attend them in Los Angeles with my boss when I worked for the music giant EMI. It was quite the experience for a girl from Coatbridge.
It was a week of opulence, dinners, gigs, parties, after-parties and, of course, the awards themselves. They went on for hours and were fun in a light and frothy kind of way.
There was no controversy. Everything was superficial, over the top and gushy, and that was just me. Fast forward ten years and how things have changed. Sunday night saw pop get political. Star after star spoke about issues from sexual harassment and the Times Up campaign to all things Trump.
The winners – mainly men by the way, oh the irony – were not really the news, it was the fact that we saw these celebrities use the awards as a platform to speak to the world about issues they care about. And I expect more of that. We saw it at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago with Oprah Winfrey’s rather amazing speech which suddenly made her a front-runner for the next US presidency and the Oscars will no doubt be just as politically charged – especially if Meryl Streep gets anywhere near the stage.
There are have been many who have been critical about film and music stars having the temerity to express a view or an opinion about politics. Some are angry saying they have “ruined” their art by venturing into such areas, that it’s a cynical marketing ploy or that they should “stay in their lane” – you can entertain but don’t try and educate.
I profoundly disagree with that view. It tends to come from people who are on the right of politics and who dismiss anyone in the arts with a brain and a conscience as a “luvvie”. But secretly, they’re just jealous that the only famous person who supports their side is Jim Davidson and even he looked slightly embarrassed when I saw him lurking at the Tory party conference.
The reason why there are fewer right wing comedians or artists is that creative endeavour often – not always of course – comes from a bit of a struggle. Interesting, thought-provoking, creative talent often tells the stories of being an underdog, of social adversity or economic disadvantage. Particularly in comedy. It tends to work better to punch up rather than punch down. Does that mean it is good that most art or comedy is of the left and expresses one view of the world?
No. I would love to see more creative people talk about why they voted for Brexit, for example. But as an artist, whatever your political and social views, you must be able to express them without fear or favour.
Successful artists are icons for young people who are becoming more politically active which is a good thing and many of these stars wield huge influence – way more than politicians. If they have a view about something they care passionately about, why shouldn’t they be allowed to talk about it at an awards show? A lot of music stars are themselves young and want to talk about their own lived experiences. Kesha spoke about her own sexual harassment in the music industry and brought alive the Times Up campaign. Dave Chapelle spoke about what it was like being a black man in America in 2018 – not so good. And Cabello, a young Mexican Cuban “Dreamer”, made a powerful and moving point about the toxic immigration debate.
And of course, Bono got in on the act and boomed out: “Blessed are the s***hole countries for they gave us the American dream”. I’m not a massive fan of Bono (what’s with the sunglasses?) but good for him for saying those words – they needed said. The Trump administration didn’t like all this one bit, quelle surprise – especially when Hillary Clinton popped up. Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley then tweeted: “I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”
The best comeback was from Beau Willimon, creator of Netflix show House of Cards who tweeted back: “Much of the greatest music ever recorded is overtly political. The chief role of an artist is to be a truth-teller. To argue that artists should be apolitical reveals your fundamental misunderstanding of how art functions in society. Stick to embarrassing the US at the UN.” Boom.
Artists should be free to be apolitical or even hostile to the ruling party and the dominant political ideology of the day. That’s often where the greatest, most important art is created. Governments and the people in charge are not meant to always like or approve of what artists do. It’s a fundamental part of what a free and healthy democracy looks like. That’s why in China, folk like artist Ai Weiwei get locked up because they dare to criticise the people in charge and they have a different view of what the country should look like. Freedom of artistic expression is as important a right as freedom of speech and a free press. These things are what make a society free. Which is why closer to home there has been some genuine concern about the consultation on the SNP’s proposed cultural strategy and fears that Ministers may meddle in the arts. Fiona Hyslop has rejected the accusation saying that the plan is to promote “access, equity and excellence”.
She says that the government is not setting out to assert “state control” or to be “prescriptive” (phew) but “they just have to have a common understanding of what the country wants”. That’s the bit that I’m kind of struggling with – the words “have to have…” That sounds a wee bit prescriptive to me. And what does a “common understanding” mean? Who’s understanding? Artists are confused. James MacMillan tweeted “Scottish cultural identity? Is that what Scottish artists should be thinking about? I can’t say it’s a priority for me in making music.”
I’m sure the SNP don’t really want to go down that road but even a dalliance in this area can take you into difficult places on artistic freedoms. The irony about the success of the SNP and their independence movement over the last decade is that many artists do share their vision of what Scotland should look like, but it is a choice which makes it all the powerful. The minute the state starts telling artists what to do or prioritise, whether it’s aggressive or even gentle and well-intended, a line gets crossed and you have to be very careful. The line may be fine, but it’s not invisible.