social justice
All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action
Image: Jerry Kiesewetter

All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action

There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.

This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.

Yes, I felt selfish.

I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.

When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.

It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.

It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.

One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.

I wanted to set something on fire.

I wanted to do something.

I no longer wanted to be a composer.

I thought:

Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?

After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.

I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.

I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.

It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.

Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?

And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.


Composer Jennifer Jolley’s diverse catalog includes choral, orchestral, wind ensemble, chamber, and electronic works. She has been commissioned by ensembles and institutions across the United States, including the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, University of Texas at Austin, Bowling Green State University, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, The Canales Project, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and the University of Cincinnati, among others. She is Assistant Professor of Music at Ohio Wesleyan University. In recent years, Jennifer has been increasingly drawn toward subjects that are political and even provocative. Her 2015 collaboration with librettist Kendall... Read more »


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