August 22nd, 2012

Captain America Pensive

When art clashes with politics

Today I saw some friends discussing the Rage Against the Machine and Paul Ryan brouhaha.  It reminded me about Rush (the band) asking Rush Limbaugh to not use use Spirit of Radio as a bumper music.  This is not a new controversy.  For example Chrissie Hynde was asked many years ago about Rush Limbaugh’s use of a song (My City Was Gone) she wrote as the opening bumper of his radio program and her response was that as long as he paid for the use of the song she was OK to take his money.

Laura Ingraham wrote a book called Shut Up And Sing about this topic as well as it being the title of a documentary about the Dixie Chicks in 2006.  The point being that we pay to see art not to hear the political views of the performers (with some exceptions for political performers like Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, etc.).  As part of reading about this I came across an article in the American Spectator titled Rush v Rush

"The public performance of Rush's music is not licensed for political purposes and any such use is in breach of public performance licenses and constitutes copyright infringement," Rush's legal representative Robert Farmer wrote Rush.

This is, for Rush the band’s sake, not legally correct.  According to a music attorney (Larry Isser) consulted by Rolling Stone about this topic the band doesn’t likely have a legal case to block the use of their music.

[R]adio networks are covered under blanket agreements for "public performance" of all songs in the publishing catalogs of ASCAP, BMI and, in the band Rush's case, SESAC, the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers. The fact that Limbaugh's show has a political agenda does not interfere with his right to play music, so long as it's paid for, says Iser.

"What he did is in fact the essence of what 'public performance' is," Iser says. Networks like Premiere, which syndicates The Rush Limbaugh Show, "all take public performance licenses for the performing societies . . . Artists who make money from public performance royalties don't have the right, typically, to control who plays their songs. Once they choose to add their songs to the public performance catalog, they're out there for anyone [with a licensing agreement] to use."

Read more:

This is different, by the way, from when the McCain campaign used certain songs (most notably “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne) in various campaign videos and ads without securing the correct legal licenses.  Those are copyright infringements as opposed to public performances.

Which leads back to the original point.  It seems that the lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello, is upset that Paul Ryan likes his music saying that he embodies the “Machine” that they are raging against.  So what?  Mr. Morello is entitled to his opinion as is Mr. Ryan and frankly Mr. Morello should be happy that he is getting the publicity for his music.  In the end I don’t care what performers think politically because very few of them actually are qualified to speak on politics, but they have a right to do so.  If a politician uses their music improperly, they have a case and should pursue it…otherwise, Ms Hynde has the best attitude…take their money all the way to the bank.

Mr. Morello’s “outrage” is even more ridiculous in that he is upset that someone likes his music whom he sees as the target of his rage.  He seems to think that he owns the interpretation of his art once it leaves his studio.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Look at Rush (the band again) for an example.  Some of their music was influenced by Ayn Rand, most notably the epic 2112 which was influenced by her novella Anthem as Neil Peart said in a 1991 interview

The inspiration behind it was ... It's difficult always to trace those lines because so many things tend to coalesce, and in fact it ended up being quite similar to a book called Anthem by the writer Ayn Rand. But I didn't realize that while I was working on it, and then eventually as the story came together, the parallels became obvious to me and I thought, 'Oh gee, I don't want to be a plagiarist here.' So I did give credit to her writings in the liner notes.

There are other songs that Rush has written that appear to be screeds against Communism in which the Oaks and the Maples argue over the unfairness of the Oaks being taller and grabbing up all the light.  The final stanza offers this warning

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
'The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light'
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe and saw

Peart has maintained that there is no hidden anti-Communistic message in the song

"No. It was just a flash. I was working on an entirely different thing when I saw a cartoon picture of these trees carrying on like fools. I thought, "What if trees acted like people?" So I saw it as a cartoon really, and wrote it that way. I think that's the image that it conjures up to a listener or a reader. A very simple statement." -- Neil Peart, in the April/May 1980 Modern Drummer magazine

And thus finally to my point…yes, finally…the artist creates their art and they have their interpretation of it, but each viewer has their own interpretation of it as well and both are valid in their own way and the artist cannot enforce their interpretation on the viewer.  If I see a strong anti-communist or even anti-socialist message in The Trees, then that is my interpretation and if you have another, feel free to let me know your take on the song.  Then I will explain to you how “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid is a very nasty and dirty song.  Or, I can just let Quentin Tarantino explain how Tog Gun is a movie about a man’s struggle with his homosexuality (just a warning, as with any Tarantino clip this is chock full of profanity).

Somehow I think that Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr might disagree with his interpretation…but darn is it funny.