He Wrote A Maybe-Satirical Song About Proud Boys But Refuses To Say Whether It Is Indeed Satirical. He Also Appeared On Gavin McInnes’ Podcast. What Gives?
Music is a powerful thing.
But the issue of who gets to wield its power? Well, that’s an oft-contested issue – especially when political figures try using for political gain the art of those whose views are vehemently opposed to theirs.
Things get tricky when the idea of art being open to the interpretation of its audience comes into play. That’s maybe how Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan all somehow came to view Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as some sort of patriotic anthem to use on their respective presidential campaign trails despite The Boss’ insistence that he intended the song as a biting critique of jingoism.
Ultimately, it’s an artist’s choice whether their material is left to mean whatever its audiences want it to be, or if the artist wants to take the guessing game out of the equation and reveal the possibly decisive, fandom-splitting inspiration behind a piece’s creation.
Eventually, every artist who is blessed enough to have gained an audience is forced to face this conundrum. And it was the Dallas-raised indie musician Ty Richards‘ turn to face this reality this week as his song “Western Chauvinist” became the center of some medium-profile controversy in Austin, where he now resides.
For three months, the song has been in rotation on the Austin public radio station KUTX 98.9-FM — well, until this week, as some listeners raised concerns and contacted the station to question whether the song’s Proud Boys-affirming lyrics were satirical or egregious propaganda.
With lyrics like “I’m a Proud Boy baby and I’m happy in the U.S.A. / I’m a Western Chauvinist with no apology,” it’s tough to say. But those waters were only further muddied once Proud Boys founder Gavin McGinnes tweeted out an approving link to the song on August 2.
That’s when the radio station — which had months before specifically asked Richards to make a radio edit of the song and remove the word “fuck” from its lyrics so that the it could be added to its rotation in the first place — reached out to Richards in the form of a letter that asked him to publicly make statement about his “intentions, lyrically.”
On Thursday, Richards publicly shared that letter to his Facebook page, asking his followers (rather rhetorically) to share whether they thought it was a demand to which he should give in.
Reached for comment about the letter, Richards’ own position on the matter becomes clear: “They don’t understand how art works,” he says of the radio station’s demands, which he views as asking that he place meaning onto a record that he would rather, for whatever reason, not openly define.
Regardless of Richards’ opinion on the station’s understanding of art, KUTX representatives have confirmed that the song has been temporarily pulled because of “listener concerns.” Those same reps also say that the station is still in the process of determining how to move forward with its support of the track; in the meantime, they say that KUTX still has a number of other Richards songs in its library, which its hosts are “free to play.”
“To be clear, I’m not mad they pulled the song,” Richards says. “I’m concerned that they are going to make me write an apology statement to save their ass [since they were the ones playing it]. The song and album is not political, and I’m not political. So I’m not going to bald-face lie about intent that is nonexistent or [that] aligns with anyone’s politics.”
But while he refuses to discuss the matter with KUTX or to answer whether the song’s narrator indeed represents his own views, Richards notably has spoken about his music elsewhere as this controversy has unraveled.
Within a week of McInnes’ tweet in support of his song, Richards agreed to appear on McGinnes’ “Get Off My Lawn” podcast — a promise he followed through on earlier this week.
That appearance was a bold move, to say the least — and one that will do little to change the minds of the many folks who Richards says that are now accusing him of being a Nazi.
For his part, Richards tells Central Track that he is not, in fact, a Nazi. He similarly denied those claims during his appearance McGinnes’ show, during which he also denied having any white supremacist beliefs.
But his recent coyness about his lyrics is somewhat curious, especially considering how previously said elsewhere that he considers the lyrics on his Welcome to Flat Earth LP to be full of “absurd satire and ironic humor.”
So why, then, the sudden reluctance to explain himself to KUTX? And what’s up with his sudden willingness to engage with McInnes’ audience?
“I’ll talk to anyone who supports free speech [and] freedom of expression,” Richard says. “It just happens [that McInnes and his crowd are] on the right [end of the political spectrum]. But, now that I’m researching, a lot of these guys on the right are all about free speech. I’ve yet to find a show on the left that is all about free speech. Free speech has been demonized — and equated with Trumpism, perhaps.”
Pressed further, Richards adds: “I want people to have conversations about art. And I’ll talk to anyone who supports that.”
No matter the platform — be it social media, radio or interviews with other media outlets — Richards has always maintained that his songs are apolitical, spur-of-the-moment creations. He denies any intent beyond starting conversations.
“I was exploring dissonant sounds and dissonant opinions,” Richards told McGinnes of “Western Chauvinist” and the album from which it springs. “The whole record is filled with it. There’s stuff about lizard people, there’s stuff about flat earth. Proud Boys was a thing in the news that I had just heard about. I saw the tenets in there and I was like, ‘It’d be really funny to put these opinions in a song and see how people react to it.’ Because it’s funny to me. Because I knew it’d be offensive. But line by line, there isn’t actually anything offensive in it.”
What happens, though, when a song is co-opted by a group that does have problematic stances? And, furthermore, what happens when an artist refuses to argue against that appropriation?
Well, some seediness, it seems. In the wake of McInnes’ co-sign, other members of his Proud Boys collective are making their approval of “Western Chauvinist” known online. One comment posted below this KUTX-hosted video of a “Western Chauvinist” live performance on YouTube specifically nails the thorniness of the issue: “Someone said this song was tongue in cheek. I don’t care… Thank you for a great song Mr. Richards, it’s ours now.”
But for Richards, who replied “I don’t know” when asked whether he personally finds McGinnes’ group problematic, the issue isn’t with how his song is being interpreted. He says his main gripe is the freedom of expression issue. And that’s a battle he says is worth fighting.
“The whole record is intended to get people talking about shit,” he says. “And it is starting a conversation. [KUTX] wants to silence the conversation. But that’s not where I stand.”