Rock music was born in a spirit of protest.
This might be tough to recall, given that these days, price structures for concerts generally place the wealthiest customers – often corporate executives entertaining their clients for the evening – in the best seats, and artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Metallica play private corporate functions if the price is right. But rock music erupted from a spirit of rebellion against the status quo, and initially at least, the idea of a popular musician espousing right-leaning policies was, generally speaking, anathema. Music was the soundtrack of the counter-culture, and rock in particular was a haven for misfits and rebels, not conformists.
Popular musicians protesting, or even boycotting, based on political views have over the past decade become the exception, not the rule, however. That's why a recent rash of cancellations based on contentious policies and laws is such a surprise.
When Bruce Springsteen cancelled a recent show in North Carolina to protest that state’s HB2 law and its discriminatory ordinances concerning the LGBT community, he took a serious hit with a significant percentage of his fan base. That didn’t stop several other high-profile artists, among them Ringo Starr and Bryan Adams, from cancelling shows for similar reasons – Starr in North Carolina, in opposition to HB2, and Adams in Mississippi, over that state’s “religious freedom” law, which allows businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples.
Recently, James Gang/Eagles guitarist and solo artist Joe Walsh went one better than Springsteen, Starr and Adams, cancelling a scheduled July 18 show in Cleveland, Ohio, when he learned his appearance would be used to generate funds for the Republican National Convention. Walsh wasn’t merely protesting a specific law or public policy in one state – he was letting the entire Republican Party know what he thought of it.
“I am very concerned about the rampant vitriol, fear-mongering and bullying coming from the current Republican campaigns,” Walsh said in an official statement released by his publicist. “It is both isolationist and spiteful. I cannot in good conscience endorse the Republican party in any way.”
As it turns out, Walsh was not made aware that his performance would be tied to the Republican Party – he thought he was playing a benefit for veterans of American wars.
"It was my understanding that I was playing a concert which was a non-partisan event to benefit the families of American veterans … The ad mat I approved said this specifically,” Walsh’s statement read, in part. “Today, it was announced that this event is, in fact, a launch for the Republican National Convention. In addition, my name is to be used to raise sponsorship dollars for convention-related purposes. Therefore, I must humbly withdraw my participation in this event with apologies to any fans or veterans and their families that I might disappoint… I will look at doing a veteran-related benefit concert later this year."
Debate remains intense concerning the effectiveness of cancellations and boycotts, but as Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt said in an April 16 Tweet, citing as an example his successful work with Artists Against Apartheid in the '80s, boycotting is often the most effective means artists have at their disposal to get something done. “Totally,” Van Zandt wrote. “It works when properly thought out. It worked in South Africa. It will work in N Carolina and Mississippi."
The members of Pearl Jam would seem to agree with Van Zandt’s assessment. The band cancelled its April 20 show in Raleigh, N.C., using Twitter to share its opinion of HB2, a law Pearl Jam considers “a despicable piece of legislation that encourages discrimination against an entire group of American citizens.”
Later in the group’s letter, one sentence takes rock-as-protest out of the realm of symbolism and into cold, hard, cash-based reality. “We have communicated with local groups and will be providing them with funds to help facilitate progress on this issue."
Given that the country appears to be as bitterly divided today as it was during the Vietnam War and the late-'60s height of protest music, it's likely that we'll be seeing more boycotts and cancellations from musicians in the coming months.