I usually try to avoid the taint of politics in this blog, but the level of political hysteria in our society has risen to the point where it’s infecting the people who play the music I listen to, and those who write about it. So this week I’m going to try to bring a little sanity and balance to the mix.
Firstly, those who write about the music: I don’t read a lot of other bloggers, but the small sample I do sample seem to be all-in with the outs, who now call themselves The Resistance®.
One of those that I read (that word should be pronounced as in the past tense) was particularly hysterical, doing call-backs to 1968 and other times of rebellion. He said he remembered those times, but I know he’s young enough to not have been on the barricades. (I was — helped build one of them, in fact.)
Another gave a list of songs to resist by, and some of the items on it were a bit head scratching — and not just because I wasn’t familiar with some of the artists, not to mention the songs. “Revolution,” by the Beatles, for instance; isn’t that John Lennon talking to the revolutionaries, not to The Man.
“Student Demonstration Time”? Probably the worst thing the Beach Boys every did — topping even that stupid song about vegetables — a cringeworthy attempt to sound “relevant.” “Get Up, Stand Up,” by Marley and the Wailers, is advocating Rastafarianism — which is revolutionary and cool, I guess, because it is assumed to involve pot smoking and, more importantly, is Not Christian.
The lines cited in Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” I have always interpreted as being addressed to his parents. Or maybe his teachers. But later on in the song, there’s that Angry Johnnie line, seemingly addressed to his listeners, that wasn’t cited: “You’re just f—king peasants as far as I can see.”
(A lot of non-self-aware people who heard that probably said “Right on! Far out!” Kind of like the crowd at that Mothers of Invention concert applauding when Zappa said, “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t kid yourselves.”)
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”? Not only is it being televised, it is being selfied. “The Revolution Starts Now,” by Steve Earle? Wasn’t Mr. Earle (not the Speedo one) the guy who wrote a sympathetic song about “Jihad John” Walker Lindh, the American busted fighting against his own country in Afghanistan? The music-banning, gay-stoning, girls’-school-burning Taliban are revolutionary, I guess.
Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose”? Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On”? Guthrie, Seeger and other socialist/communist artists of the time thought World War II was a capitalist plot — until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
Noah Berlatsky, writing in The Atlantic magazine, quotes Seeger, quoting Guthrie, after the United Kingdom threw in its lot with Stalin. “Churchill has flip-flopped, we've got to flip flop!” Berlatsky adds, “In some sense, Guthrie and Seeger really did see themselves less as artists talking politics, and more as politicians playing banjos. Pro-Stalin politicians playing banjos, alas.”
These days, they’re more likely to be playing electric guitars. Some, like Springsteen and John “He Was Better when He Was Cougar” Mellencamp, have the decency to put their money where their mouths, and voices, are. But many seem to know less about what the issues are, and more about what their market is, and who their audiences are, and to be expediently hopping on the band(sorry!)wagon.
As for those who perform, or play the music on the radio, it seems like I’ve heard “The Presidential Rag” several (as in too many) times the past week. That D-minus lesson in civics was created by Woody Guthrie’s other gift to the world, his son Arlo, who turned one mildly-funny narration-with-guitar-accompaniment into a career, sort of. “No one voted for your advisers”? Thanks, Prof Obvious, for non-edifying us on the Executive Branch. No one voted for Robert McNamara, either.
When musicians were cancelling their North Carolina concerts to protest that state’s “bathroom bill,” Joe Walsh patted himself on the back for keeping his dates, so he could educate the audience. Just what the people paid $200 a ticket, or whatever, wanted to get: a lecture, or a harangue, take your pick. Joe, at least, got it: he got paid, and he got to feel like he was being virtuous.
Me, I prefer a bit more nuance in my tunes, something that challenges the prevailing wisdom. Which, these days, is quite different from what the musicians of the late 1960s and ’70s were taking aim at — maybe almost 180 degrees different. Something like “Real Men,” by that thinking-man’s songwriter, Joe Jackson: “Kill all the blacks, kill all the reds/And if there's war between the sexes/Then there'll be no people left.”
Van Morrison had a good answer to this sort of thing, in his “The Great Deception”: “Did you ever hear about the great deception/Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run … Did you ever hear about the rock and roll singer/Got three or four Cadillacs/Saying power to the people, dance to the music/Wants you to pat him on the back.”
Or how about Ten Years After? “Everywhere is freaks and hairies/Dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity/Tax the rich, feed the poor/Till there are no rich no more?/I'd love to change the world/But I don't know what to do/So I'll leave it up to you.”
Or the Eagles? “We thought we could change this world/With words like ‘love’ and ‘freedom’” And, the same guys: “I turn on the tube and what do I see/A whole lotta people cryin’ ‘Don't blame me’/They point their crooked little fingers at everybody else/Spend all their time feelin’ sorry for themselves.”
The latter lyric doesn’t necessarily, specifically address the situation these days, but pretty well nails some other social trends. The song’s title, though, does offer some good, contemporaneous advice: “Get Over It”!
Last but not least, Joe Jackson again: “So when they come with that opinion poll/They better not use words like/Ideology/Or try to tell me ’bout the issues/Ideology/Whose side are you on/We’re talkin' ‘bout/Right and wrong, do you know the difference.”
Bottom line, something that’s not a song lyric: If you’re looking for art that confirms your ideology, you’re looking for ideology, not art.