(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 30.)
Back in the 1990s I attended a rock concert on the Wellington waterfront. The headline act was Carlos Santana, who had burst onto the scene in 1970 with a string of hits that included Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman and Oyo Como Va.
Those records still sound good today. Santana fused Latin and African rhythms with West Coast acid rock, a heady mix that made his early album Abraxas a best-seller. He was a guitar god too, producing arresting solos in a tone that was uniquely his.
Alas, Santana turned out to be a one-trick pony. His Wellington concert revealed a limited repertoire that ran the full gamut from A to B, to borrow a line from Dorothy Parker. The support act, George Thorogood and the Destroyers – exponents of honest, straight-ahead, no-nonsense boogie – were much more entertaining.
I could, at a stretch, have excused Santana for being predictable, but what was unforgiveable about that night’s performance was the frequent verbal interludes in which he insisted on sharing his philosophy, for want of a better word, with his audience. His droning, meandering homilies were even more monotonous than the music.
Santana gave the impression of suffering from some sort of Dalai Lama complex. Perhaps he thought we’d all paid good money to hear his half-baked, New Age theories on how to expand our cosmic consciousness.
Well I hadn’t, and I bet most of the other people there hadn’t either. But being polite New Zealanders, we suffered in silence.
Not for the first time, I wondered about the peculiar conceit that makes rock musicians – and some actors too – imagine that we look to them for inspiration on matters of politics, religion and philosophy.
They are probably encouraged in this delusion by adoring music critics who read profound meaning and insight into even the most banal song lyrics. Bob Dylan, who almost single-handedly intellectualised rock music, has a lot to answer for – although to give him his due, to my knowledge Dylan has generally avoided the trap of delivering sermons to his fans. On the one occasion that I saw him in concert he barely spoke at all.
Some other rock stars, regrettably, seem convinced that the world is vitally interested in their views on political issues; that we lack the gumption to think for ourselves and must wait for their guidance. Step right up, Bono – a man whose name has become synonymous with pompous sanctimony.
John Lennon was another who made the mistake of thinking that being a pop star conferred some sort of moral authority on him. Lennon became a bore from the moment he began using his music to deliver lectures about peace and love.
What made it worse was the sheer hypocrisy. Like many of his ilk, Lennon found it easier to sing about love – as in his puerile hit Imagine – than to demonstrate it in his personal life.
In her 2005 book John, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, portrayed the former Beatle as cruel and indifferent to her and their son Julian. She recalled Julian saying: “Dad’s always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn’t love me?”
The truth, of course, is that most rock and pop musicians are not moral exemplars. Neither do they have any more political or spiritual insight than you or I. But their celebrity status deludes them – and many of their gullible, star-struck fans – into thinking they’re oracles. The media are complicit in this, reporting celebrities’ political views as if they carry special weight.
Politicians have become adept at turning this to their advantage. Just look at the way Hillary Clinton co-opted Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Madonna and others in her unsuccessful bid for the White House.
These stars exploit their appeal as singers and musicians in an attempt to exercise influence in a totally unrelated field. This is a misuse of their power, and I lose respect both for the stars and the politicians who indulge in it.
The absurdity becomes evident when you imagine the roles being reversed. Would Springsteen invite Clinton to sing with him? I doubt it. To put it another way, Springsteen has about as much credibility as a political commentator as Clinton would have as a vocalist.
We sometimes see the same thing happening here, albeit on a much more modest scale. The actor Sam Neill and the musicians Don McGlashan and Chris Knox have all thrown their weight behind the Labour Party in past election campaigns.
Usually it’s the left of the political spectrum that benefits (if that’s the right word) from such celebrity endorsements, but there are exceptions. The psychologically unstable rapper Kanye West recently announced during a concert that he would have voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election, had he bothered to vote at all.
For this he was booed, as he deserved to be – not because he supported Trump, but because he assumed his fans were interested in his politics.
In hindsight, we should have booed the tedious Carlos Santana too.