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Pittsburgh-based Anti-Flag, fellow musicians comment on election through song

| Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, 10:54 p.m.
The Rock Against The TPP music tour stops in Pittsburgh on Thursday. The multi-city show, mixing music and politics, started in Denver in July, above.
Evan Greer
The Rock Against The TPP music tour stops in Pittsburgh on Thursday. The multi-city show, mixing music and politics, started in Denver in July, above.

Music doesn't exist without politics for the drummer of Pittsburgh-based punk-rock group Anti-Flag, who goes by the name Pat Thetic.

The band has been playing politically charged music around the world for more than 25 years. Its music draws uniquely on sociological and political issues.

“We've lived here our whole lives, and Pittsburgh has a long history of labor and social justice,” Thetic, whose real name is Pat Bollinger, said. “As young musicians we just assumed that all music had a political or social justice message to it. That's the kind of music we loved and wanted to create. For us there is no music without politics.”

During the 2016 presidential election, Anti-Flag and a number of well-known musicians have weighed in on politics. The United States actually has a rich history of mixing music and pop culture with political discussion and debate, experts said.

“There is a long tradition in this country of musicians covering political topics,” Anthony Nownes, 52, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, said. “For the most part, music reflects politics. But there is growing evidence that music and musicians can actually influence politics as well.”

Anti-Flag will headline a free concert at Mr. Smalls Theater on Thursday. The show is a part of the nationwide “Rock Against The TPP” tour. The tour uses the power of music and culture to inform people about what proponents believe are the potential dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the 12-nation trade deal that has been a contentious issue.

The “Rock Against the TPP” tour brings together a range of supporters including digital rights groups, labor unions, environmental groups and small businesses. The Pittsburgh stop of the tour is supported by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the Pennsylvania Fair Trade Coalition and Fight Back Pittsburgh.

“This show is in that space that's between a rally and a rock show,” Thetic said. “The ‘Rock Against TPP' shows were started because people noticed that when you bring people together, you create power. These shows have been very effective at, A), educating people about the TPP and, B), motivating people to stand up against it.”

Evan Greer, the lead organizer of the “Rock Against The TPP” tour, agreed that music has played a part in social change throughout history.

“It's an incredible way to bring people together and inspire and sustain action for a better world,” Greer, 31, said.

The free show runs from 6 to 11 p.m. and will feature Pittsburgh labor singer Anne Feeney, bilingual rockers Downtown Boys and other supporting artists.

The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign has utilized Spotify, creating the Official Hillary 2016 Playlist. The playlist uses a variety of artists' music to help spread her message to potential voters. That kind of tactic can have an impact, Nownes said.

“I have found that celebrity endorsements affect some people's views of the two major parties,” Nownes said. “This may lead to changes in voting behavior over the long term.”

Rachel Sappie, 22, of Crafton, who will be attending the “Rock Against the TPP” show, says that this is the most concerned she's ever seen musicians be in an election.

“With social media, musicians haven't been afraid to let their stance and opinions on the election be known,” she said.

Nownes said he believes this election has been pretty standard in terms of musicians getting involved.

“For example, a number of the ‘usual suspects' have endorsed Hillary Clinton,” he said. “By this, I mean the liberal types who generally support Democratic candidates. People like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Lady Gaga. Similarly, a number of right-leaning musicians including Wayne Newton, Kid Rock and Ted Nugent have endorsed Donald Trump.”

One group of musicians created “30 Days, 30 Songs” (30days30songs.com) an independent website that has released one new song a day since Oct. 10.

According to the website, the artists united to speak out against the “ignorant campaign of Donald Trump.”

The artists campaign features songs like “Million Dollar Loan” by Death Cab for Cutie, “With Love from Russia” by Bhi Bhiman and “Donald Trump Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” by Ledinsky.

The project quickly became very popular, so they added 10 more songs to make it 30 Days, 40 Songs. Now, some days leading up to Election Day will feature two songs.

“A three-minute rock song won't change the world. But music inspires people,” Thetic said. “That inspiration of people is what makes people change the world. Every revolution has a soundtrack.”But are fans actually affected by the political viewpoints of their favorite musicians?

“Political scientist David Jackson, for example, has found that musicians who speak out on politics can affect the attitudes and opinions of their fans,” Nownes said. “In other words, if you like Bruce Springsteen and he tells you he thinks the government should do more about global warming, there is a chance this may affect your view on the subject.”

Mackenzie Sugrue, 20, who attends anywhere from 15-20 concerts a year, disagrees.

“I'm going to vote for who I'm going to vote for regardless of what my favorite band says,” she said.

Sappie sees the value in musicians speaking out through projects like “Rock Against the TPP” can have.

“I think it really helps in terms of getting people more involved with what's going on in the world,” she said.

Sappie enjoys the politics and encourages musicians to keep speaking up. She feels like a lot of younger fans have yet to be introduced to politics and should be informed on what could become of the country's future.

However, not everyone is a big supporter of mixing music and politics. Sugrue said sometimes the platform musicians try to build is taken too far.

“There is a fine line between someone using their platform and being preachy,” Sugrue said. “I don't go to shows for a lesson in politics. The music I listen to is all about feelings. Not Republicans and Democrats.”

So has Anti-Flag lost fans because of the band's message?

“Absolutely, but I don't care,” Thetic said. “If you are interested in activism, music and social justice then you might be interested in the kind of music we create.”

Thetic said people can listen to or create music with whatever message they want.

“If you want to sing about puppies and rainbows I think you should do it,” he said. “That's not interesting to me, but if that's what speaks to you then go for it.”

Celebrities may have a bigger stage to share their political views, but we all have the responsibility to be informed and platforms to share our thoughts and feelings, Nownes said.

“I guess I would say that celebrities have the same responsibilities that we all have - no fewer, no more,” Nownes said. “Sure, they have a bigger platform than the rest of us. But we should all be informed before we make important decisions. This means that we should never accept anything anyone says for gospel.”

Jessica Federkeil is a freelance writer.

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