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Jerry Lewis Tag

You still hear the word agitprop thrown around occasionally in pop culture criticism, usually when somebody’s talking about the Clash, or maybe Michael Moore. But like many elements of the critical lexicon, the word has a very specific meaning that’s sometimes forgotten in the grab for respectability by the half-bright. In its strictest sense, agitprop refers not to the artistic statement of an individual — no matter how vehement or politically-charged the statement — but to the use of art as a collectivist political tool.

By that reasonable definition, the Clash didn’t produce agitprop, because the Clash weren’t a political action committee — they were a rock band. True agitprop flourishes (if that’s the right word) in times and places where there’s a heavy State apparatus to promulgate it: the early Soviet Union; China in the days of the Cultural Revolution; today’s North Korea, where the only radios available come straight from the factory pre-set to the government frequency, and with no tuning knob.

In a free society, though, people are going to watch and listen to whatever the hell they please. In the marketplace of art, victory doesn’t always go to the worthiest agenda, but to the strongest craft. That the Clash was the Only Band That Mattered while (say) Crass or Chumbawamba are footnotes is not necessarily because Strummer et al. had better politics, but because they had better hooks.