Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Who's gonna save me?

What with all the political hoopla going on in Oz-land at the moment I thought I'd turn my attention to politics in music. By some strange coincidence this afternoon I was listening to drive time radio where Aussie musician Ben Lee was being interviewed about this very thing. Maybe he's not the best authority but he's young, he's outspoken and he's a musician - okay maybe he IS the best authority. He said that art and politics were inextricably linked, but that good political music will first and foremost appeal to the compassion within people and that people who have compassion in their hearts WILL vote accordingly: They WILL vote to aid education and health, they WILL vote for measures to help the environment, they WILL NOT vote for war etc - Compassionate people will vote for compassionate causes. It's a loaded statement but you know, I can't fault it. It's true, our real responsibilities are in building a future that goes beyond us - trusting that will happen is the hard bit - trusting that pouring money into money pits such as education and health will have good results is hard. Accepting that losing money will eventually help us be better people, smarter people, healthier people is difficult but is it worth it?. For me, no question, yes, yes, yes and I don't quite understand any other way to build a stable future to tell you the truth.

Anyway, I digress - there are people who will disagree with politics and art mixing but I'm not one of them. I like my art a tad controversial - not all my art of course - some of it I love purely for it's aesthetic value. Obviously disco gives me nothing in terms of thought but damn those dance beats get me every time. Other music I love purely because it brings up a question or challenges the way things are. I think music is an extremely powerful platform to which people can use to have their say. Have a look at gospel and old slave music and the importance it has in those cultures. What about how the Aboriginal people told their history through art and music? It's powerful. Looking through history you'd be hard pressed to find a time when politics and music were not linked in some way. Classical music is often likened to specific political figures. There were many war propoganda songs in the early 20th Century and then as time went on we grew into folk, punk and anarchist, riot grrl, grunge and music which generally had a social conscience. It's always been around.

The question keeps getting asked though: Are musicians qualified to make political statements?

Well, it seems to me we're stepping down a tretcherous road if we're saying that only certain kinds of people get to speak their mind while others have to shut up. So yes, IMO they are qualified. They are qualified simply because they are human, they live in society and they have an opinion. By that token I think that anyone with a voice is qualified to have their say - even the people I (or you) don't agree with. Hell, I might disagree quite strongly and loudly but that's the point in a society that advocates free speech - you're allowed to do that, it's encouraged even. Guess what? Life isn't one big tea party where everyone chews like they have a secret and smiles sweetly over Turkish Delight. Life is messy and political and more importantly in our own hands. I really do believe that people not standing up for their beliefs and the beliefs of others who have no voice has resulted in a society that is too scared to change. Change is important for (r)evolution and if no one is saying anything then you can bet we're all going to be stuck in a rut for a while yet. It amazes me, the amount of people who do not advocate passivity in their personal life but are extremely passive when it comes to speaking out on political matters. Things don't change on their own, we have to change them.

So yes, I do think that musicians are qualified to have their say - they also speak to an audience that the politicians and academics do not - that is youth. Youth are oft forgotten when it comes to politics - swept under the carpet because they are too young to vote and spend and there fore not seen as important to include in the debate. I beg to differ - they are the most important resource we have. They'll also be running the nursing homes we'll be living in, so you know..we'd better be nice.

The other reason why I enjoy the odd political song is that musicians are artists and there is integrity in standing by the art you create that goes far beyond it being "just a job". Why can I listen to a piece of music and find it more relevant than some kind of political debate on the television? Well, because said artist has put their heart and soul into the things I listen to. No I don't give the same consideration to music that is mass produced, fuck no, that has little soul. I might like elements of that kind of music but not the message. So unless an artist is being held under the thumb of an overly inflated conservative record label (or are created BY a label) they can say whatever the fuck they want. I LOVE that. There's a reason we don't trust politicians - they never say what they mean - ever. They also lie to get votes. Musicians don't have to do this - not if they're writing their own music (ie: not Milli Vanilli). There's enough variety in the music industry to sustain the boy bands who say nothing AS WELL AS the Dixie Chicks, who haven't stopped talking for years now and that's good. There's something for everyone. I know that when I listen to a piece of music I'm listening to an opinion that I can either take or leave - I don't have to like it and if I don't I can go elsewhere - but if someone takes the time to say it then good on them.

However, what happens when musicians move into politics? Do they maintain their political integrity?

Peter Garrett - Aussie muso turned politician can be used as an example. I can't think of any other mainstream musician apart from perhaps Bob Dylan in the early days and Eddie Vedder during the grunge era who have been more outspoken and explicit in their political ideologies. Whether you agree with their political musings or not, Midnight Oil were an amazing band and an Australian institution - you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with that. I was excited when Peter Garrett first announced his political candidacy because I thought he would immediately stir things up - but this wasn't to be. Politics means existing inside a box where one has to conduct themselves in a certain way. We live in an era of political conservatism - even the liberal left aren't as left leaning as they used to be. People are scared to say what they think and unfortunately (maybe ironically) it's the politicians who have to zip it most of all.

Rock musicians don't live by these constricting rules, they can be as liberal or conservative as they like. They can even live a rather unclean type of lifestyle and still say what they want. Maybe we take what they say with a grain of salt but that's okay too - context does matter. I'd be less likely to agree with someone who was coked out for most of their career than someone who was clean but anyway the point is both musician and politician have a ready audience. Who would you rather listen to though? Liar, activist or artist? Peter Garrett may be pushing his agenda through other avenues now - there's a lot to be said for the act of subversion - moving with the mainstream while slowly chipping a secret tunnel and I support that too - but I have to say: I miss the old Peter Garrett, wonky dancing and all.

Not all musical artists are explicit though - not everyone is a Billy Bragg or Bikini Kill. Musical artists have been lending themselves to causes for many years now in the form of, Live 8, Live Aid, Rock the Vote, Free Tibet, RAIN, Race Rights, the surf rider foundation, live earth, United Farm Workers, earth first, animal rights, Sweet Relief, Home Alive and so many more. They are out there, even if they don't hold interviews that project an explicit point of view.

Following are a few of my favourite songs which have a political edge. What are your favourite political songs and why (if any)?

Masters of War - Bob Dylan (This song is an explicit reminder of exactly how war works: Top down - and who loses: the plebs. The song was written in the early 60s and every single word is still relevant today. Scary.).

stand out lyrics:

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

The Message - Grandmaster Flash and the furious five
(This is an important song and has been much referenced by other artists through the years. Deals with the struggles of being black in a ghetto neighbourhood in the US. Something tells me not that much has changed).

standout lyrics:
Bill collectors they ring my phone
And scare my wife when I'm not home
Got a bum education, double-digit inflation
Cant take the train to the job, theres a strike
At the station
Me on King Kong standin' on my back
Can't stop to turn around, broke my sacroiliac
Midrange, migraine, cancered membrane
Sometimes I think I'm going insane, I swear I might
Hijack a plane!

Don't push me, cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to loose my head

21st Century Digital Boy - Bad Religion (Social commentary on consumerist society that has no soul - with particular regard to how baby boomers have fucked things up for their Gen X/Y offspring. You know...typical Bad Religion music :P)

Stand out lyrics:
Cuz I'm a 21st century digital boy
I don't know how to live but I've got a lot of toys
My daddy's a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy's on valium, so ineffectual

Blue Sky Mine - Midnight Oil (Miners and visitors to CSR mines in WA exposed to lethal levels of Blue Asbestos. The company continued to act negligently even after health warnings - people are still dying today and many will continue to die in the future from fatal illnesses as a direct result of this exposure. The song gave voice to many people who didn't - and still don't - have a voice).

stand out lyrics:

The candy store paupers lie to the share holders
They're crossing their fingers they pay the truth makers
The balance sheet is breaking up the sky
So I'm caught at the junction still waiting for medicine
The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine
Hope the crumbs in my pocket can keep me for another night
And if the blue sky mining company wont come to my rescue
If the sugar refining company wont save me
Who's gonna save me?

Blue Sky Mine - Midnight Oil

Dear God - XTC (It's been described as an Atheist's anthem. It's an incredibly brave song - and also a wonderful piece of music in its own right).

stand out lyrics
Did you make disease, and the diamond blue?
Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too

Dear God - XTC

Double Dare Ya - Bikini Kill (Kathleen Hanna was pretty much responsible for the riot grrl feminist movement of the 90s. She started her zines and band as a reaction to the rampant sexism going on in punk music at the time. Ian MacKaye (punk god) was supportive of this venture and engineered some of BK's stuff. Kathleen Hanna is hated and loved at the same time, which seems to happen a lot to women who speak out. She screams, she swears and for a while there she wore a ski mask during her performances so you couldn't even see her face. She does not beat around the bush - she's very outspoken and thank fuck for that. How often do you see girls really rocking it like boys, potty mouth and all? Not in the mainstream that's for sure. There's a lot of girls in skimpy bikini type outfits though - hence - Bikini Kill. Definitely not pretty music).

stand out lyrics:
Hey girlfriend
I got a proposition goes something like this:
Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry right outloud
"You get so emotional baby"

Double dare ya, double dare ya, double dare ya
Girl fuckin friend yeah

Double Dare Ya - Bikini Kill

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