Would You Hold It Against Me?
As I get out my brushes and paint bottles and stare at the empty canvas, I see a myriad of possibilities in front of me. With the first stroke of the paintbrush, my emotions flow through me and onto the canvas. There are certain opinions I hold that my paintings can describe better than I can with words. Art is an outlet for self-expression, which allows me to freely express how I feel about certain aspects of my life. Art is not limited to painting and drawing; it can also be expressed in the form of music and lyrics.
Each individual artist has their own unique style of communicating their perspective on issues important to them. These issues can range from war, racism, and inequality to personal problems and relationships. What makes art such an effective tool in addressing social issues is its ability to spread awareness in society on social problems. A song becomes popular when people can relate to the lyrics with their own experiences. Once a song has reached Billboard’s top-forty list, a majority of the nation has heard the song.
Art can help people connect with some aspect of social reality in a manner that they could otherwise have not without its aid. However, even though art holds significant power, it is a form of free expression and stems from the artist’s view on life. Artists are not obligated to address social problems in their work, but they have the responsibility to do so when the social issue ties in with their own personal beliefs (Just Jared 4).
Due to the creative aspect in an artist’s work, their interpretation of their own work can vary from the audience’s interpretation. The meaning that an artist intends to convey may therefore differ significantly from that of the audience. An example of this multi interpretation is the Eagle’s 1977 hit song titled “Hotel California” (GLAAD 8). The songwriter, Don Henley, suggests that the song contains various socio-political statements, which “is [his] interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles. The Eagle’s intention for the song is different from what the audience perceives it to be. When the audience hears “Welcome to Hotel California/Such a lovely place/Such a lovely face,” it can easily be interpreted as a song that comments on the luxurious carefree lives of those who live in Beverly Hills. The Eagle’s message about “Hotel California” was not as clear as they hoped it would be, and led to a misconception between the artist and the audience (GLAAD 9).
With this misconception of the true meaning behind the song, the artist’s work towards the social issue is watered down. If it were the artist’s responsibility to convey an opinion on social problems in their work, it would be counterproductive if the audience did not understand the meaning behind it.
The obligation of an artist to comment on social issues in their work is not the major role that society expects them to perform. The position that first comes to mind when one hears the term “artist” would be along the lines of one who creatively express themselves, not one who advocates for social issues. Art is a form of expression and using it, artists can express various sentiments through the force in their brush strokes and through the variations of colors, or through their lyrics and rhythm of the song (Noah 5).
Music allows artists to express their current state of emotion, which is the basis of most of the songs Taylor Swift writes. Her songs range from love and happiness to heartbreak and anger. In one of her songs, “Forever and always” she comments on her short-lived relationship with Joe Jonas with “One second it was perfect/ Now you’re halfway out the door”. Taylor Swift uses her music to express emotions that she could not have expressed effectively through other platforms such as in a conversation. She utilizes her songs as a mechanism for venting her emotions about relationships and life. This demonstrates that art fulfills a role in the life of the artist and it allows them to be in touch with themselves and who they are. Taylor Swift has become a rising star in the music industry using this method of free expression without addressing social issues in her songs. Forcing an artist to address social problems, which may not be of relevance to them, may therefore inhibit their artistic expression (Walters 4).
Placing external pressures on an artist and forcing them to conform to the idea that it is their duty to address social problems may affect the audience’s response to today’s mainstream artists. Today’s songs have grown to be blunter about sex, drugs and alcohol than the songs from the seventies. Music has evolved from White Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music” to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”. Ke$ha, an artist who has a few hit songs in the top forty list, says that her music is “a celebration of youth and life and going out and going crazy. I’m about non-pretentious irreverence and f**k off good fun!” (Ke$ha quoted in Just Jared). Ke$ha’s songs are mostly about drugs, alcohol, and partying (Just Jared 8).
It would be unnatural if Ke$ha, who writes lyrics such as “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack”, to write a song about a social problem. The audience is already accustomed to her singing about these topics and would be confused with the abrupt shift to more serious issues. This is not to mean that the audience, as human beings, does not understand that at times, people evolve or mature in their views. The problem is that when this change is abrupt or unexpected, it is hard to comprehend. The audience would not take her seriously because of the image she has created for herself as a “free-spirited youth”. Therefore by forcing mainstream artists who are known for their upbeat, fun songs to address social issues in their songs would be unconventional and unproductive (Walters 3).
Artists produce more heartfelt and meaningful works when they feel inspired. There are special circumstances when placed under pressure that an artist whips out a hit song. But creating works of art from inspiration has more sentimental value for the artist than when created from the stress of a deadline. Works of art that exhibit a personal connection by the artist can sometimes relate to the audience and last through the decades. An example of this is the song by the Beatles, “Hey Jude”, which has persisted as one of their greatest ever. It was written to provide support to and console John Lennon’s son when his parents were separating, giving it a social dimension. The lyrics of the song can apply to John Lennon’s son and to the general population with the message that is conveyed. The Beatles’ songs have a way of touching the hearts of many generations, by using lyrics that stem from their own personal convictions, which also applies to the lives of their fans (Noah 5).
But should an artist be compelled to produce socially conscious works as a result of supposed social responsibility, the work would lack the passion from personal convictions and reduce the impact it has on society. Forcing the artist to address social issues can have an adverse effect on the artistic work, rendering it a weak force for social change. Artists should be able to address social problems only when they feel inclined to do so.
When a social issue directly relates to an artist, their works of art stem from the heart and benefit both the artist and society. Artists can use their work to trigger the viewer’s attention to certain issues hence causing them to look into their own lives. Recently Lady Gaga has escalated in fame because of her extravagant and unique style of music. On top of Lady Gaga’s out-of-the-ordinary wardrobe and her rather expressive music videos, she is an open activist for homosexuals and an opponent of homophobia. Lady Gaga does not specifically define her sexual orientation, but instead, she says “I am a free-spirited woman: I have had boyfriends and have hooked up with women” (Lady Gaga quoted in Out). Her connection to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community gives her the added emphasis of ethos to support her cause. Her songs bring a sharp focus to the issue of discrimination as a result of sexual orientation. Her new hit single “Born This Way” is a direct social comment promoting the idea that being homosexual is innate and not a choice. She uses the lyrics “No matter gay, straight, or bi/ Lesbian, transgender life/ I’m on the right track baby” in her song to express the beauty in being different. The artist therefore raises awareness and social consciousness on the subject by fostering change (Walters 2).
By doing this, the artist uses her fame and her work to change people’s minds on the issue of homophobia by depicting gay people as every bit as normal as straight people. This “new perception” is crucial for any social change to take place since it results in the doing away of stereotypical views. Lady Gaga’s social commentaries are powerful because she is a non-heterosexual, widely accepted artist in the music industry, which brings hope to the LGBT community that eliminating prejudice is not out of reach. Addressing social problems must come from the artist’s own convictions and not any external pressures, to promote change in society (Noah 2).
Although artists have the freedom to express whatever they feel- which does not always correlate with speaking about social problems- they possess the tools to deal with issues that the rest of society dares not address. The fame that artists have gives them the power to send a message out to the public. Through the various expressions available to them, artists can provoke the society to talk openly about issues such as racism, gender violence and homophobia, to name but a few. Without this provocation, the general public would be content to keep quiet about the issue and act like it was not important. Artists offset this by making the public face these controversial issues.
The work of an artist ultimately portrays who they are as a person. It illustrates their emotions, their opinions and anything else that comes into their mind. Addressing social problems is a very sensitive matter. If an artist addresses the problem in a “wrong” way, a whole crowd of critics will come in and tear their work apart. An artist’s fame is not stable. Their fame depends on how the audience responds to their music.
In order for artists to maintain their fame and by extension their power of influence, they have to be careful what they sing about. If they sing about a social issue that is of little significance to them, the song would lack true sentimental value to the artist. As an artist myself, I find it somewhat frustrating when other people try to compromise my artistic style. My paintings consist of a variety of canvasses that add up to define who I am as a person and an artist. If I were to conform to society’s expectations, my paintings would no longer be completely mine. Individuality and uniqueness is what I aim to achieve in my artwork. My responsibility as an artist is to be true to my artistic style whether society accepts it or not.
GLAAD. “Lady Gaga-“I’m Gay. My Music Is Gay. My Show Is Gay.”” Opposing Views: Issues, Experts, Answers. 2009. Web.
Just Jared. “Ke$ha: Nashville Flood Benefit Concert on June 16! | Kesha.” Just Jared. 2010. Web.
Noah, Pattie. “Hey Jude by The Beatles Songfacts.” Song Meanings at Songfacts. Web. 2011.
Walters, Charley. “Eagles – Hotel California.” Super Seventies: Rolling Stone. 1977. Web.