A spate of violence as horrific as the one recently experienced in the United States is the sort of thing everyone is entitled to have a reaction to. And “everyone” includes entertainers. Yet an odd, shaming script plays out when musicians in particular make their feelings known about matters of national importance. That script was highlighted this week, after Kacey Musgraves, the alternative-country singer who recently won the Album of the Year Grammy, called for gun control following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Someone tweeted at her, “Stick to the singing Kacey. You do realize most of your fans are packing at your shows don’t you?”
In other words, Shut up and sing: a slogan famously used against the Dixie Chicks in the George W. Bush era but probably much older than that. It’s a cousin of “Stick to sports” and other phrases that attempt to keep cultural figures from using their platform to try to effect change. Musgraves retweeted her critic’s message with her own response, which was that she “grew up around hunting and guns” but doesn’t think anyone needs an automatic weapon. Her original message that triggered the “Stick to the singing” response was this: “I love keeping things about the music and usually stay out of politics publicly UNTIL it barrels past political party preference points and dangerously encroaches on fundamental human rights. It’s then not political issue anymore. It’s a matter of heart. Of humanity. Of survival.”
Musgraves is among the musicians who have shaped the discourse around the recent shootings. Artists are speaking out and doing that thing artists arguably exist to do: put worldly matters in terms “of heart” and “of humanity.” The fascinating reaction to their political speech has demonstrated the specific reach musicians can have. More than anything, though, artists’ reactions to tragedy can end up demonstrating why shutting up and singing isn’t often an option at all.
Demonstrations of discontent have encompassed punchy salvos and reflective fare. Rihanna wrote a lengthy Instagram post criticizing Donald Trump’s refusal to describe the El Paso shooter as a terrorist. Lana Del Rey went into the recording studio and sang a wistful new protest song with a chorus that talks about “looking for my own version of America / One without the gun,” but with verses that mostly, in Del Rey’s meta-nostalgic fashion, just talk about road-tripping.
Among the responses, Musgraves’s does stand out—and not just because, as a country singer hailing from Texas, Musgraves has the ability to reach some listeners who disagree with her about gun control. At Lollapalooza in Chicago on Sunday night, after addressing the weekend’s shootings, she led a chant: “Somebody fucking do something.” She then retweeted a video of that chant with a message of thanks “to everyone still brave enough to come out to festivals like this to see us play.” That thanks was a jarring reminder of why musicians in particular might have an urgent desire to stop this kind of violence. The largest mass shooting in modern American history was at a music festival, specifically a country festival, just two years ago. Artists such as Musgraves are, in a very concrete way, speaking for their own and their fans’ welfare.
Another country-adjacent artist, Alabama’s Jason Isbell, inadvertently set off the one moment of humor to be found amid the recent horrors. On Sunday he tweeted, “If you’re on here arguing the definition of ‘assault weapon’ today you are part of the problem. You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one.” Among the replies was this riddle from a user identified as William McNabb: “Legit question for rural Americans—How do I kill the 30–50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3–5 mins while my small kids play?”
That reply got thousands of retweets and replies—Shouldn’t he just build a fence? Is using an assault weapon really wise when your kids are in the yard?—and for a few hours, it was impossible to go on social media without seeing a riff on “30–50 feral hogs.” His question sounded like a joke, but McNabb later said it was an earnest ask based on real situations he has remedied not with an automatic firearm, but with a hunting rifle. In any case, the brouhaha born of a red-state artist speaking out on the topic led to an oddly perfect illustration of a key gun-control argument: There are almost no situations in which a civilian needs an assault weapon. That was exactly the point Isbell was initially trying to make, despite being told by certain followers that it wasn’t his place to say anything. On Monday he tweeted about the inanity of “Shut up and sing” rhetoric: “‘Oh you’re drowning? Sorry. I’m gonna stick to music.’”
The Massachusetts metal band the Acacia Strain didn’t really have the option of shutting up and singing through the latest tragedies. The alleged shooter who killed nine people in Dayton reportedly wore a hoodie branded with the band’s name and some of their lyrics. Vincent Bennett, the band’s lead vocalist, tweeted that he was “sick” at learning that, adding, “Anyone who knows anything knows we don’t condone this behavior. No one has the right to take another’s life.”
Though Trump has focused more on video games lately, angry and loud music has long been on the list of cultural products frequently scapegoated as a cause of violence—and that scapegoating is happening again. That’s partly because the alleged Dayton shooter was reportedly in a “pornogrind” band that made music with misogynistic lyrics. And it’s also partly because of the Acacia hoodie he wore. An Ohio TV journalist referred to the song his sweatshirt quoted as “hateful and vengeful.” A since-deleted post from a Twitter user said that Acacia had a “death message.” Bennett has pushed back against such criticism by asserting what he says his real message is—“positivity”—and by tweeting about how to help survivors.
Bennett has also sarcastically posted a series of images of himself supposedly “promoting violence” by smiling at an audience member, goofing around onstage dressed as a Beavis and Butt-Head character, and holding up a cute dog. The pictures are reminders that singers are just people, and that there are no people without a stake in ending America’s gun-violence crisis.
This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.
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