Jakarta – We love it when artists get political, when they believe that the arts such as books, songs and paintings are not just supposed to entertain but also to change the world.
Art should inform its audience about the human condition and great art can serve as a rallying call against evils in politics.
Picasso's "Guernica" is a living monument to pacifism and its searing critique of Nazism has made it relevant for generations to come.
Woody Guthrie's song "This Land is Your Land", a leftist anthem against racist violence written in the 1940s has now secured its place in the annals of rock as one of the greatest ever, up there with Bob Dylan's anti-war anthem "Blowing in the Wind," and Public Enemy's anti-fascist poetry in "Fight the Power."
Closer to home, we have artists like Iwan Fals or Jakarta-based rock and roll collective Slank, who for the better part of the 1980s inspired millions of young people in the country with their anti-establishment songs.
It bears repeating that Iwan Fals' song "Bento", a diatribe against then authoritarian leader Soeharto inspired young people in the late 1990s to take to the streets and rally against the brutality of the New Order regime.
Slank, at its creative peak, managed to write biting social commentary without losing its touch in great riffs and melodies in songs like "Birokrasi Complex" and "Feodalisme (Warisan Kompeni)".
The problem with Iwan Fals or Slank is that they should have called it quits long ago, when they were still heroes.
These days, you will see them gracing billboards, television screens and social media ads, peddling cigarettes, cheap cellular phones and/or writing songs for dubious causes.
Late last week, Slank again caused quite a stir after releasing a song written to celebrate the 77th anniversary of the National Police titled "Polisi Yang Baik Hati" (Good-hearted Cops).
With cringe-worthy lyrics and run-of-the-mill power chords, it was a new low even for Slank, which is now light years away from its glorious peak in the mid-1990s.
This should not have come as a surprise for us, because like so many major bands in the country, Slank has decided to align itself with the country's political establishment, starting when the band headlined the 2019 concert at the Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex to generate hype for President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's bid for reelection.
Today's music business is tough, with revenue from records sale drying up due to the low pricing scheme offered by streaming services, Spotify in particular, and the live music industry has barely recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With very little incentives offered by the industry, musicians and artists could be forgiven for thinking that joining the political establishment is the only way out of the slump.
This could explain the moves by some of the biggest names in music like Giring Ganesha, Ahmad Dhani of the popular band Dewa and Pasha Ungu to join major political parties and run as legislative candidates.
Or if politics is too much, especially for those lacking any political acumen, they can license their brands or songs to sell tobacco or coffee.
There is nothing wrong with musicians using their songs to sell goods (Even Bob Dylan once did an advertisement selling SUVs). But politics come with its own moral quandary and oftentimes musicians end up on the wrong side of history for the wrong choices that they make.
Musicians should always educate themselves before making any decision on what to do with their art. Or if they do not have courage to make a choice, there is always option for them to stop.
As one poet from the 1960s used to say "it's better to burn out than fade way."