There’s a sentiment that floats around whenever we think about culture, and if it’s not quite an adage, it’s certainly a natural bias we should all fess up to. And that sentiment is this: we believe that artists should just stick to their one thing.
Rapper Kanye West shouldn’t be singing in autotune. The essayist Chuck Klosterman shouldn’t be writing fiction. Ronald Reagan should probably stick to his acting day job.
Let it be damned, we all secretly think, the fact that once in a while, stepping outside your box leads to something remarkable, something amazing. No: People should just stick to what they know.
We’re seeing that sentiment crop up again in this week’s latest pop culture brouhaha—although, maybe it’s more haha than it is brou. Neil Young of course touched off a stir with his criticism of the Harper government, saying there will be First Nations blood on their hands if the oil sands creep on.
First, let’s set aside the fact that Neil Young is indisputably one of our finest musical exports. Actually, while we’re at it, let’s also set aside the reality that Young hasn’t really put out more than one essential album in the last decade.
Instead, let’s figure out why we’re so uncomfortable with Young talking political shop. The answer is right there: we think Neil Young should stick to singing tracks off of Harvest, and leave the politics to the wonks and the watchers.
But if we are uncomfortable about this, we really shouldn’t be.
Let me digress for a minute, in a way that won’t surprise you once you find out I graduated from a liberal arts university: For decades, philosophers of science have more or less agreed that objectivity in science never really existed.
Instead, philosophers like Bruno Latour say that what we agree is “factually correct” is driven by a majority consensus of scientists, who are actually rife with beliefs and biases they apply to their findings. A part of the fight for what’s right is actually grounded in things like persuasion, too. So while we put them up as experts, and we expect them to deliver facts, our idea of facts is wrong in that we believe that science exists on this totally different plane from you, me, or Neil Young. The more scientists believe something, the more we see that as “objectively true.” Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean science is false. Scientists do have the benefit of rigorous research, to swat away any climate change deniers in the audience. But science can boil down to the equivalent of “4 out of 5 dentists agree, this brand of toothpaste is the best.” That toothpaste is probably the best one, though, and I for one would buy it. Hard to say you wouldn’t, either.
Alright, so what does one old French philosopher have to do with Neil Young and politics? Well, the reality of celebrity culture is that their platform dramatically increases their value in these weighted consensus affairs. They’re not scientists, no, but they get to speak much louder than them. They’re able to tip the scales and build a consensus all their own.
So it’s a heavy hat to wear. And some wear it really badly. In the U.S., you’ve got people like Jenny McCarthy saying vaccinations cause autism, which science generally agrees is sort of ridiculous. Except, because she’s famous, even the staunchest of us wondered, even if for a second, whether there’s a speck of credibility to it. And here in Canada, there’s Pamela Anderson, slow-motion bounding into Newfoundland to stop the seal hunt by offering career hunters a pithy sum of money. In that instance, it looks like the emperor—or rather, the lifeguard—wears no clothes.
Now, Young isn’t new by any stretch to the political block. “Ohio” is probably the platonic ideal of a folk protest song. He wrote a song demanding that the U.S. impeach George W. Bush. He even prophecized that Barack Obama would run for president, when the then-state senator was just a twinkle in the eye of the U.S. political machine. And he’s been advocating for the environment since as early as 1985. It’s clear he’s done his research.
But the solution is not for people to box people into their one thing. Maybe the solution is to trust ourselves to parse the Andersons from the Young, the Harvest wheat from the chaff, and decide on our own what we think. After all, like Bruno Latour says: facts are only facts until we find out they’re wrong.
Now, Young isn’t perfect. His comparison of the oil sands to Hiroshima might’ve been a bit over-the-top. The hybrid electric car he boasts about feeds on ethanol, and there are plenty of reports that suggest it needs too much farmland and that making ethanol actually takes more energy than the energy produced by ethanol. The car’s also really expensive and not market-ready, so driving it around the U.S. to set an example probably isn’t as practical as it is in theory.
But if there’s one truth, it’s this: Neil Young moved the needle, before he saw the damage done. And if he knows what he’s talking about, there’s really no reason to take issue with him not doing what’s easy: sticking to his own thing.