It is a question we ask ourselves as artists, as individuals, as humans, every waking day. An obvious example for anyone employed in the arts, or who has traded profit for passion, is the "Why" that seems to rear its ugly head every time the bills are due, or the car breaks down, or the gig gets cancelled, or attendance is disappointing. Or when the gig pays well and the room is full, but the audience is loud and drunk and either wants to hit on you or hear Journey covers. Or both.
Then there is the "Why" of what brought us to this whole music/art thing in the first place. Some of us were too young when we started out for any critical thought deeper than, "I want to!" We just knew it was something we really, really wanted to do. Had to do. And even years on, "Because I want to," is still justification enough on so many levels. Once we journey further down that road, however, we (hopefully) become aware of the layers of responsibility that being an artist brings. And as an artist coming from certain long-held musical traditions, traditions which often directly reflect the suffering and experiences of those who had hands in their creation and perpetuation, I'm beginning to realize more and more just how those responsibilities are not to be taken lightly.
Anyone who's heard a murder ballad, a protest song, or had a "soundtrack" to a breakup can attest to the power of music and musical tradition. Though music has entertainment value beyond compare, it can be dangerous to completely divorce a song from its historical context. Songs are expressions of humanity set to melody and you risk losing that humanity by just focusing on the entertainment side of things (not trying to be a killjoy here, as there are certainly loads of songs meant for nothing more than fun. And fun is necessary too!) But consider that many of our most beloved songs have a dark history, whether personal or political. To try to sugarcoat that is to do a vast disservice to the times that created that music and the people who suffered and struggled and were inspired and comforted by it.
I've been thinking a lot recently about the difference between being an entertainer and carrying on a living tradition as a musician. Having grown up playing traditional music, I can't help but feel the weight of responsibility to those that have gone before; those that have taught me, and those that have taught them. It's jarring to see this respect sacrificed for the sake of a cheap laugh, applause, or a quick buck.
One recent instance I found very upsetting was a holiday show in which the set list included John Lennon's "Happy X-mas, War is Over", immediately preceding the IRA-supporting football song, "Up the RA." I'm not sure which was more shocking to me: the musical/ethical clash of those two songs back to back, or the audience response. (Audience: "Yay, X-mas, peace on earth." ----> "YAY! Carbombs, terrorism, religious and sectarian violence! But there's clapping and fist pumping! YAY!") And this was at a matinee show at a very nice performing arts center. This wasn't a bar gig. Similar arguments could be made for many songs from the Civil War era, or the more modern example of talking whoopee cushion Mike Huckabee condemning Beyonce for setting "a bad example" for young women while himself cavalierly accompanying Ted Nugent on a marginal-at-best rendition of "Cat Scratch Fever." Playing a song without learning and taking responsibility for its meaning and history is something I'm finding more and more offensive these days.
Bear in mind, I'm certainly not bashing going out to see some live music and just have a good time. There's no entertainment experience on earth that can replace seeing a live show and it's something that needs supporting now more than ever. And not every concert needs to be a profound social and musical commentary. There are some songs that exist purely for the purpose of fun and enjoyment, and those are no less valid than the "heavier" musical numbers that are out there. I just think it's our responsibility as musicians, artists, and entertainers to distinguish and respect the difference.
Music has power to change an individual or collective consciousness. Let's try to use it wisely.
P.S. On a simpler note, to anyone who's ever come up to me (or any artist) after a show to say how much a certain song meant to them: That's Why.