In a recent post at his official site, Billy Bragg reflected on a year of political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East — and he couldn’t help being taken aback by the lack of commentary from the musical community. The post, titled Why Music Needs to Get Political Again, includes the following observation:
I can understand why young artists might be unsure of how to approach politics. Since the ideological battles of the 1980s, the whole distinction between left and right has disappeared under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Even I have trouble making sense of it all — does anybody know what Tony Blair really stood for?
But making political pop should not be a matter of setting Karl Marx to music. I’ve heard that stuff and it never sounds right. Pop becomes political when it stops being self-pitying and self-aggrandising and starts to speak truth to power.
The Popdose staff mulled over Billy’s words. Our discussion follows.
Dw. Dunphy: I respectfully disagree.
Jack Feerick: Care to unpack that? Are you saying that starting a band *isn’t* a better outlet for boredom and frustration than, say, throwing a trash can through the window of the Apple store?
Dunphy: The Clash came up at the great and fortunate time when people would listen to The Clash. As a matter of fact, there were certain cultural channels in place at that time where, if you were of a particular generation, you weren’t going to be able to avoid The Clash. Those channels don’t exist now.
What we have now is an ignorance fed by selectivity, and a reality that can be custom tailored to fit how you want to see things, not how they really are, where rebellion and “taking a stand” happen for all the wrong reasons and are yet rewarded.
For instance, Texas has been in a severe drought all summer, one of the worst in history. Yet the governor of that state does not believe that human activity has played a damaging role in the ecosystem and weather. How is this position, running headlong into science like a linebacker with a nose full of wacky-chalk, rewarded? He’s the new frontrunner for the Republican party and, in some polls, running neck-and-neck with the president. He may be ignorant, but thank God he’s not black.
Who’s to blame? Him or his supporters? Into this comes the idea that a politically-minded individual with three chords and the truth will make an impact. I don’t see it. Unless this person is wearing a meat bikini and sporting Kool Aid purple hair this week, there are no channels to direct that message to the masses, if the masses are even inclined to consider these details if they heard them.
I think the idea of venting versus causing damage and hurting people is a good one, and Bragg is to be commended for his belief (especially in accord with what he was seeing with the London riots), but I don’t see it making a difference. I’ve been telling everyone I’ve seen this weekend that the storm that is two times the size of the state I live in will not harm them. It’s a positive statement and I feel it is highly appropriate, but I don’t for a minute believe my words will physically diminish the storm itself.
Or like I said to a friend a few days ago: sometimes anxiety is the appropriate response to a scary situation.
Ted Asregadoo: Music certainly has the power to reinforce political views, but as an explainer as to why events like the riots in the UK happened, or the Arab Spring uprisings, or even the Tea Party in the U.S., it’s doubtful that someone “with a computer and some beats” can really tell us what’s going on. Sure, they can tell us what they are feeling politically, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a reflection of the wider movement(s).
Annie Logue: I get your point, Dw. I am a big Billy Bragg fan, but it’s not like he had any influence on Margaret Thatcher. Socialism is dying out just about everywhere, and often for very good reasons.
Maybe I’ve read too much Chomsky, but I sometimes wonder if the wear a t-shirt — listen to the Clash — like a Facebook group brand of political activism is designed to be a distraction from real political work. My husband and I are reasonably active in reform Democratic circles here (there are two Democratic parties in Chicago), and passing petitions and trying to get people to come out for candidate forums is hard work. I’ve made calls and knocked on doors for several presidential candidates over the years, and it is not fun, not at all. But it matters. My husband talked to a woman in Indiana who thought that you had to reregister to vote for every single election, and so she thought she could not vote for Obama. But how much work went into getting that one vote? Rik spent an entire afternoon of walking around some subdivision and having a few people slam doors in his face.
I would like to see more political activism for what I consider to be the cause of good, but it will take a lot more than just new music.
Ken Shane: Annie, your comments remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s much-discussed article in the New Yorker last year.
Jon Cummings: Unfortunately, right now practically all the activist energy is on the side of the selfish, the racists and the paranoid. Meanwhile, despite the hype surrounding “organizing for America,” since election 2008 the primary message out of Obama’s Democratic Party seems to be, “Just send money, and trust us.”
And a slightly less glib comment, taking Gladwell as inspiration: the fragmentation of popular music broadcasting into narrow niches, and the simultaneous commodification and devaluation of the music business created by digitization and file sharing, have left the industry and its artists in no position to foment effective protest, much less revolution.
David Lifton: It doesn’t help when ClearChannel won’t let anything overtly leftist on their stations.
David Medsker: Music exec: Sorry, but political isn’t in right now. Try again in a couple of years.
Chris Holmes: Is there even an audience receptive to politically charged music anymore? Rage Against the Machine was popular, but how many of their fans even cared about their message?
Dan Wiencek: Music can only reflect the times it’s made in. That’s all it has ever done. The instances in which the cart starts pulling the horse — when art engenders true political change — are sufficiently rare that we can look on them as the exceptions that prove the rule. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle (though I’d consider that more a work of journalism than a novel) … I can’t think of many others. “Blowin’ in the Wind” didn’t start the civil rights movement. “Imagine” didn’t end the Vietnam war, to put it mildly. I’m pretty willing to bet that no one ever changed their intended vote in an election based on anything Pete Seeger ever sang.
So am I saying it’s a waste of time for artists to “be political” or to address political concerns? Of course not. Artists of any medium will express what they feel, political or otherwise, and so contribute to the ongoing dialogue within our culture. Just because it doesn’t change anyone’s mind is no basis for dismissing political art as futile. No honest work of art is futile, because no honest work of art has any real “function” other than to express what its creator thinks and feels.
That said, Bragg’s piece was pretty incoherent. “Nothing beats the thrill of making an audience of 50 people cheer a line in a song that you’ve just written that hits on something that they feel strongly about.” Fuck, any band can do that. I’m sure Kiss gets a lot of cheers when they sing “I want to rock ‘n roll all night, and party every day.” And isn’t that a narrow and self-satisfying reason anyway? Is that why artists should be political, so the people who already agree with them will agree that much more?