Archive for the ‘music’ Category
Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.
So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.
You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:
Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?
Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!
And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.
If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girl, you’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.
Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” Butt she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.
I live in Columbia med school housing up in Washington Heights. It’s convenient for my wife, Julie, who goes to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Our apartment is great. But I live in a med school bubble, and I’m not a medical student. Also, the neighbourhood is a bit of a bar and restaurant wasteland. I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s 85% Dominican, so it’s difficult to feel like a part of the community. And I’m not religious enough for the bochers further north around Yeshiva University.
Further south, however, I just discovered a marvelous piece of history. At Jumel Terrace, just east of 160th and St. Nicholas, sits the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. George Washington lived there during the Revolutionary War, and hosted a dinner in 1790 including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr lived there in the early 19th century. The mansion is now a museum; I got to see the dining room where that dinner took place, and Washington’s bedroom, servants’ quarters, the women’s rooms, the parlour, and more. In Washington’s bedroom, a small, amusing exhibit was set-up called “Washington’s Facebook.” A cartoon cardboard cutout of Washington sat with his laptop, on his Facebook page, his cell phone on the table. The implication is that similar to the recent Arab Spring, if Washington had had access to Facebook and Twitter, he would have used them to foment his own revolution.
Far more interesting to me than this colonial history, however, is the more recent history that surrounds the place. The bookstore, Word, or Jumel Terrace Books, open only by appointment, sits across from the Mansion at 426 W. 160th. It has a remarkable collection of African American and Africana literature. It also has a lot of left-wing, Marxist, and revolutionary books, noting that “books are weapons.” It even has revolutionary board games.
Class Struggle, the board game, serves “to prepare for life in capitalist America.” Funny, I thought Monopoly did that. Class Struggle is “for kids from 8 to 80.” Fun for all ages! It also comes with “directions for possible classroom use.” And it’s educational too!
Then there’s this one:
The X Game, with a large quote from Malcolm X on the front, asks us to “Stop the System By Any Means Necessary.” It is a “cooperative game,” noting “it’s a race to achieve unity–the key to Black liberation” and “winning requires working together to beat the ‘System’ … no one can do it alone!” Sounds perfect for those non-competitive parents, but I don’t think Amy Chua would approve.
Even more interesting, however, are those African American elites who came to live in the still beautiful section of the neighbourhood, once called Harlem Heights or Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson all made their homes in this neighbourhood. Robeson first lived at 16 Jumel Terrace, but then, like several of the others, moved into 555 Edgecombe Avenue (also known as Paul Robeson Boulevard). Today, Alicia Keys lives in Robeson’s apartment, continuing the tradition. Maybe the history helps her retain her New York State of Mind
As is obligatory for Creem magazine wannabes like myself, I am a big fan of Wilco, whose latest album the Whole Love, was a surprisingly excellent work for a band that had descended into unfortunate levels of NPR-accepted statis. Today they posted on their website that they are releasing the album on Piano Roll (an early April Fool’s joke, I assume). Piano Roll, according to my best wikipeding, is the process of recording music via long sheets of paper with notches cut in it. A player piano is required to hear it. They haven’t been widely used since 1927, when shellac 78s started to take off. As they announced:
“Wilco pride themselves on authenticity and a respect of the American musical tradition, so what better way to honor that heritage than to listen to The Whole Love on a barely functioning piano in a dusty antique store,” writes Chief Wilco Strategist Lucy Lillabee. “Besides, these things cost like $1 to make, and hipsters are going to eat this shit up.”
The joke hits a bit home. First it was vinyl, and carrying around new 33s was a sure sign of taste. Now, as our vast readers of hipsters are surely aware, the cool kids are selling their recordings on a hipper and even less practical format: cassette tapes. As anyone who has been to one of the thousands of new bars in Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene that force their employees to dress like a Prohibition-era barmen knows (or has taken a look at Trader Joe’s turn-of-the-century bourgeois aesthetic) there is a vast market for pseudo-authenticity, for consumer items whose very appeal is that they appear not to be consumer items, relics from an innocent time, goods whose exchange value is astronomically increased by seeming to be all use-value.
Of course, there is no more evidence of being an insufferable hipster than humorlessly complaining about the insufferableness of hipsters, so let me show a little empathy for the luddism that Wilco is (lovingly) mocking.
As absurd as it all is, I think the hipster love affair with vinyl (and cassette tapes, and homemade pickles, etc…) actually speaks a bit to the dullness of digital culture. People increasingly participate in culture digitally: they download music from itunes (or steal it), they read books on their kindle that they bought with one button on amazon, they watch movies streaming on netflix, and tv on hulu. As a result, the places and cultures that used to be hubs of these things are dying out. Records stores are going extinct, video-rental stores (like the famous Kim’s of the East Village) are out of business, and even the big-box book stores are going under.
Sure, record stores were run by snarky aloof losers, book-stores by dweeby know-it-alls, and video-stores by the worst of them. But they were still little cultural hubs, where you could learn about cool new bands, have a book suggested, etc… At their best, book stores (like say Cambridge’s Raven or New York’s Book Culture) can feel like mini-temples to all the knowledge you don’t yet have, inspiring you to want to read and know more.
So I’m of two minds about the digital transmission of art. On one hand it democratizes it, letting every kid in every small town download whatever they want. On the other hand, it removes so much of the mystery and meaning out of the experience. This might sound hyperbolic, but things like itunes disenchants the experience of buying music, just as kindles do the same for reading. Last week I was in Other Music, an insufferably hip but kind of charming record store (referenced as Alan Sparhawk’s “favorite record store” on Low’s classic album The Great Destroyer), and came across an early Belle and Sebastian album on vinyl. I had forgotten about all the little stories that Belle and Sebastian used to put on their album covers, the unique imagery they employed on all their releases (close-ups of precious looking models with pretentious literature in their hand, all faded some monochrome wash) and just holding the record induced some sort of twee “episode of the madeleine” moment, bringing me back to my days as a college dj, when I first started listening to the band. Belle and Sebastian, in particular, cultivated an entire aesthetic to their recordings, something only fully appreciated if you can hold the physical object in your hands.
There is a totality to the experience of most art; you never experience anything with only one sense. Music brings to mind images and experiences, you remember the shape and feel of the books you read, etc… I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like digital art lacks much of this, its one-dimensional and flat, stripped of the context that the artist consciously and unconsciously meant for it. The record as object used to have a certain magic to it, as the portal into the artistic experience. I know lots of bibliophiles feel the same way about the printed book. Certain books and record sleeves even have a particular smell of fresh paper.
With music in particular, the inability to quickly shift between songs and albums on vinyl changes the experience completely. You are stuck with the music, forced to listen to every song in a way that you aren’t with your ipod, which encourages a sort of musical ADD. Sure, those filler tracks on Guided by Voices albums were annoying, but waiting through a crappy song like “Auditorium” in order to get to “Motor Away” was an essential part of the experience. The Times just reported on a similar problem with readers and their ipad, as readers can’t concentrate on long books for long, without checking their email or facebook. I imagine long or more challenging literature will suffer if everyone is interspersing their twitter feed with their Pynchon.
Which is a long way to say that, yes, I paid $27 for The Whole Love on vinyl back when it came out, when I could have gotten it for $9.99 on itunes. I haven’t yet invested in a player piano, but maybe some day…
According to Facebook (as of August 2nd, 2011), 20,276,298 people like The Beatles, 7,244,166 people like The Rolling Stones, and 4,405,856 people like Elvis Presley. Beethoven, the loser, clocks in with only 790,240 fans. Even Mozart (966,170) beats him, and Bach almost does (701,441). I was pleased to see 11,823,218 people like Nirvana but was disturbed to see that 20,053,533 like Metallica (though, I’m going to guess that 90% of these fans are nerds from former Soviet Republics). 20 million like Metallica while only 206,623 like Slayer! Despite the fact that Reign in Blood is clearly a better album than Kill em All. 7,103,826 like Johnny Cash, but a depressingly small 1,985,086 like The Clash. An atrociously high 9,157,292 like The Doors. The fact that more people like the Doors than like the Rolling Stones is best evidence of the innate depravity of the human race I’ve probably ever seen.
Appropriately only 243,344 like the Velvet Underground, though, of course, everyone who did, has already formed a band. More people like Minor Threat (227,233) than like Fugazi (141,533) even though Ian Mackaye led both of them, Fugazi still, sort of, exists, and, let’s face it, Fugazi is way more interesting. Only 1,769,379 like Bruce Springsteen, which I wish was accurate, because maybe his ticket prices would go down.
22,191,162 like Barack Obama, and I’m personally offended that he beats the Beatles. John Lennon never tried to shred the social safety net or extend taxes for the rich. I’m proud to say, though, that the Simpsons handily crush Obama, with 32,896,906. The amazing punk band the Minutemen, at 22,367, appear to have crushed the racist assholes of the same name, who have as of now only 74 fans. As near as I can tell, though, the winner is Michael Jackson, who appropriately crushes the competition with 38,865,724 fans.
(The real winners, by the way are here). The top sites are Facebook–lame!–, Texas Hold-em Poker–stupid–, and Eminem–surprising! Is it still 1999?)
As some of the other entries in our “Stand Up and Sing” contest have already established, great political music does not have to promote a specific party or platform. Often, it’s sufficient for performers to use their music to unleash pent-up anger, question the status quo, or raise possibilities for an alternative future. These are musicians after all, not politicians.
Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster,” released in 1978, is a case in point. The song expresses the band’s contempt for British repression in their native Norther Ireland, but doesn’t support any particular nationalist faction. In fact, the group had members (and followers) from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Maybe the band’s rejection of factionalism–combined with its fierce indignation toward contemporary life in Belfast–helps give “Alternative Ulster” its continued urgency.
Depressed by current events, I’ve turned to Matisyahu for comfort. The former Matthew Paul Miller, a secular Jew turned baal tsehuvah (i.e. he has become an extremely religious Jew) is a hip hopping hasid strongly influenced by reggae music. He frequently rhymes about Jewish themes, which I enjoy, even if his religiosity can make me, an atheist/agnostic Reconstructionist Jew, somewhat uncomfortable. My favourite song of his, however , speaks to the secular and religious. It’s called “Jerusalem,” and I’d like to nominate it for our “Stand Up and Sing” political song contest.
The chorus, “Jerusalem if I forget you, fire not gonna come from my tongue, Jerusalem if I forget you, let ye right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” is a Biblical reference, from Psalms 137:5-6. The actual passage reads: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is classic (if not classical) Judaism: even when you’re happy, even when you’re celebrating, like at a wedding, for example, you should still remind yourself of tragedy, so break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The first verse of Psalm 137 is the famous, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” made famous by the reggae band The Melodians as “Rivers of Babylon” in the soundtrack for 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The Rastafarian/Jewish-Zionist connection rears its head again. Supposedly, the prophet Jeremiah penned Psalm 137 by those very rivers of Babylon sometime after 586 BCE, where he lamented his people’s exile aka The Babylonian Captivity, praying for a return to his homeland, Ancient Israel, and its capitol, Jerusalem.
Of course, one needn’t read this passage so literally. In fact, Matisyahu himself doesn’t. In the song’s first verse, he sings:
3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty
I guess Matisyahu is including the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, but he’s referring to 3000 years of life in the Diaspora (Jewish life outside of Israel/Zion). Or is he? For it seems that the “milk and honey” he’s being forced to give up is not something physical, “not the country,” but in fact “the dwelling of his majesty.” This is not referring to the King of Israel, but probably to God himself/herself/itself. But that’s only if you read the song religiously. If you read it as a proud secular Jew and ethnic particularist, like I do, you can still read it in a depoliticized fashion: this is not Zionism (the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew have a complicated relationship with modern Zionism anyhow). Instead the “dwelling of his majesty” could mean the spirit of Judaism, or Jewish identity, if your heart and mind. I think that’s how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (the denomination to which I belong, as did the pre-hassidic Matthew Miller), would probably read it.
The next verse is more expressly political, or at least historical.
Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be
The first line here may refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Yet the next verses are clearly about the Holocaust, and about Jewish assimilation after the tragedy. The last lines, “cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be,” is quite clearly a paean to Jewish cultural retention, yet it too need not be read religiously. It can just as easily refer to Jewish culture as Jewish religion. In fact, it need not be read Jewishly, but might simply be interpreted as a paean to ethnic particularism. The key idea: it’s schmucky to abandon wholesale the culture from which you sprang. Obviously reality is more complicated than that, but the words get me going each time.
Matisyahu’s message is clearly more religious than political. And yet, he is also trying to bring people together through music. And that’s not just instilling pride in Jews left and right, secular and religious. He’s also performed with Muslim beatboxer Kenny Muhammad. And in a version of one of his most recent hits, the catchy if somewhat naive and generic antiwar song, “One Day,” he performs with Akon. Yes, that Akon: the Senegalese-American Muslim and another of my favourite recording artists. It’s not peace in the Middle East, but it’s something.
As I mentioned in my comment on Nemo’s original post, I think songs that seem to address more personalized themes, like gender identity, sexual fluidity, female empowerment don’t receive the same amount of criticism as songs/artists who appear to be addressing things that are viewed as larger, structural like the prison-industrial complex or geopolitics. Maybe because the artist is presumed to have more cred as someone who can assume a personal identity (as enraged woman or transgendered individual).
This is partly why I like Grizzly Bear’s cover of He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss). A Brooklyn-based band made up of straight and gay men, their cover of an overly-covered song is haunting and I think re-subversive because they aren’t really the people you’d expect to be singing this song.
There is a trio of female empowerment songs that might receive more lambasting, because they get caught up in a whole “female power” thing that male pundits take delight in mocking: Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and more recently Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It.” Of course the empowerment of these ballads depends on context. Single Ladies is a song about women holding men to commitment, explicitly marriage. Played at a conservadox Jewish wedding I was at last year the effect was muted. But if you were to visit a suburban Connecticut high school dance in the late 90s/early 2000s, a place where feminist was an unspoken or dirty word, you might appreciate the fact that it was something wonderful for a group of teenage girls, whose main media messages were perfect bodies and achieving male affection, to be able to hop around in a circle belting out “R.E.S.P.E.C.T./ Find out what it means to me.”
But to be honest I’ve never been one to really find my political messages in the lyrics of song. I read much better than I hear; I don’t digest the spoken or sung all that well (ask me to give you the lyrics of a song I’ve listened to a hundred times and I’ll come back empty). So for me music is more about the sense I get from it, the atmosphere it creates around me, the random thoughts it brings to mind. I discovered Antony and the Johnsons in college at a moment when I first started thinking seriously and began to be seriously bothered by gender and sexuality in society, binaries and restrictions. Coming from a very “normal” town the oppressiveness of “normality” and the value of fluidity and blurriness made sense to me.
Antony’s voice is gorgeous and, oh god, don’t kill me for saying this, it seems to perform yet subvert gender all at once. One critic described him as a white man who sounds like a black woman. There’s something of the cabaret in him, which reminds me of the time I was at Judson Memorial Church by Washington Square Park and a very large gay man got up on stage in something that wasn’t quite drag but wasn’t quite wasn’t and belted out a showstopper show tune in the middle of the church service. This is maybe the closest I’ve ever gotten to 1980s gay New York and I treasure the experience dearly.
On his album “I Am A Bird Now,” which came out in 2005, Antony’s lyrics explicitly talk about boys becoming girls, but it’s his voice that really blurs these lines and is the political message, a voice that is sorrowful/lamenting but also sounds otherworldly/betterworldly. Antony’s also been a popular success, winning Britain’s Mercury prize in 2005. It is very likely that he’s contributed more to everyday people understanding the humanity of transgendered and transsexual identities than a thousand copies of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body… which don’t get me wrong I love and is the way I first started thinking hard about gender ambiguity, since I’ve never been able to actually hold on to any of Antony’s lyrics beyond the fact that there’s a boy who wants to be a girl.
In any case, I submit to you Antony and the Johnson’s “For Today I Am A Boy”
Ok… I’ll do my entry in our song contest. (Warning: personal and self-indulgent)
When I was 15 I used to hang out in this local record store called Mystic Disc. The kind that doesn’t really exist anymore thanks to our Apple overlords (Mystic Disc actually does, but I think they only sell rare vinyl to collectors now).
I would just go in and the guy at the desk, Jim, would literally tell me what to buy. It was like that scene in High Fidelity where Jack Black yells at the guy for not owning Blonde on Blonde. We’d talk about how fucking loud Mission of Burma was when they toured New London back in 1981, which Husker Du album to buy, argue about whether Sandinista! was a decent album or not. All that stuff.
Back then, of course, it could actually be hard to find albums that you wanted. I remember him telling I had to get Pink Flag by Wire, but there was no way to find it in the states. You had to order it from this special British website. And to get Entertainment by Gang of Four, I had to bid some crazy amount on Ebay. Of course, the hunt was part of what made the music special, feeling like I had been initiated into this elite crew, while everyone else out there was listening to Everclear and shit like that.
Obviously thanks to the spread of the internet and the iTunes store, both music and also information about music is much more accessible. You don’t need to know someone (even if it was just a store clerk) to get turned on to the cool music, the way you used to, you can just sign onto Pitchfork or Allmusic. Obviously this is more democratic, but it also strikes me as a bit flatter, a bit less personal.
Anyways… sorry for the self-induglence. This is all a build up to my political song choice, which is The Minutemen’s This Ain’t no Picnic. Its off Double Nickels on the Dime, their 1984 double-album classic. Everyday I used to drive to school listening to this album, and I suspect it did more to politicize me than anything I ever read.
Plus this is an awesome fucking music video.
By the way, their name, The Minutemen, does not refer to the length of their songs, as is often assumed. Rather it was their attempt to mock a fringe right-wing group of that name. D.Boon and Mike Watt’s previous band had been called “The Reactionaries.” Anyway… proving, I suppose, that the modern right-wing is unmockable, now everyone thinks of the racists from Arizona when they hear “The Minutemen.” Suffice to say, D. Boon, a man of the Left, would have been horrified (he died in a car crash). But also, probably, a bit amused.
I know we can all find the anti-war songs that we know and love, from the 1960s on down. To spice things up a little, I’ll play provocateur and nominate Toby Keith‘s infamous “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” his fiery musical response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. I confess to enjoying country music a great deal, and I think this song is really catchy. But it’s also got hilarious yet inspirational lyrics:
Now this nation that I love is fallin’ under attack.
A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.
Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.
Yes, America’s foreign policy in the Middle East undoubtedly had some causal connection with the 9/11 attacks. But the correct response is not to kill a janitor and 3000 other innocent people of all races and religions in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and Flight 93. Keith is right to be angry about that. He’s also right to demand some measure of justice.
Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage:
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An’ you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
‘Cos we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.
This verse makes me happy. Maybe that’s because of my own unresolved issues concerning the military and masculinity. Unfortunately, lots of innocent people got boots in their ass, and Bin Laden’s butt is still boot-free, and the war in Afghanistan remains a quagmire, probably worse than the conflict in Iraq.
This leads me to observe that Keith’s contribution is a good deal less controversial than Clint Black‘s more questionable “Iraq and I Roll”. The catchy chorus “I rock, I rack ‘em up and I Roll,” celebrating the “high tech G.I. Joe” is funny if a little sad. The verse “If they don’t show us their weapons, we might have to show them ours,” is a little funny but mostly sad.
I suppose someone should nominate something by the Dixie Chicks in response. I like them too.
Still, the contest got on my nerves a little. While I realize that Sullivan probably makes a distinction between air-headed posturing and compelling protest songs, the whole tenor of the “Shut up and Sing” contest seemed to suggest that pop musicians have little business mixing with politics at all. One of Sullivan’s correspondents cites Dennis Leary’s comment on Sting, “Save the world? Try saving your fucking hair!”
Now, I know this wasn’t the point of the contest, but it’s too often the case that musicians (and celebrities more broadly) who dare to tread into political waters earn what many consider deserved mockery for their naïve and hypocritical, “limousine liberalism.” From this view, pop stars should stick to what they know best; they should “shut up and sing.” As my fellow blogger Wiz noted about the character attacks endured by M.I.A because of her politically-charged lyrics, if she was “was singing about the stuff that Britney Spears or Taylor Swift sings about– which is to say, nothing at all– then no one would care. If she was simply a walking ad-campaign, all consumerism and plasticity like those popstars, [the media] would have no problem with her. But because she dares to try to express political thoughts, she makes herself a target.”
So, with all due respect to Andrew Sullivan (who I greatly admire), I would like to start our own little contest here at PhD Octopus. It’s entitled “Stand up and Sing.” It’s a chance for our readers and my fellow bloggers to submit the best pop songs (broadly defined) that deliver a political message (again, broadly defined). These are songs that provide pointed social commentary without falling over into smugness. It should go without saying that the entries should also be good songs. Here at PhD Octopus we’re all about quality and content.
I’m going to get the contest going with three songs, which share little in common except that they remain relevant and come out of the 1980s—a period too often eclipsed by the 1960s in discussions of protest music.
I actually heard the first song on my list, “Smalltown Boy,” by Bronski Beat four years ago through Andrew Sullivan’s website, which shows that he does have an appreciation for strong socially conscious music. Sullivan called the video “the record of the beginning of a revolution.” It’s a powerful song; there should be more like them on the radio today:
My second selection comes from hip-hop group Public Enemy. While everybody knows their famous anthems about fighting the power and not believing the hype, I wanted to highlight their tale about one man taking on the prison-industrial complex in “Black Steel in an Hour of Chaos.” As the United States continues to hold the dubious record for the highest incarceration rate in the world and with a hugely disproportionate number of them being black males, the anger Chuck D expresses at his government and the prison system remains sadly pertinent over two decades later:
Finally, I thought I would include a track that, on the surface at least, seems to confirm to some of the worst stereotypes about politicized pop music. The song includes a man making adolescent facial poses while smearing himself with what appears to be ketchup; it includes another man rapping about Nostradumus in a vampire costume; and it takes its courageous stand against the controversial issues of “world destruction.” Still, Sex Pistols front man John Lydon and hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa teamed up in 1984 for what turns out to be an oddly compelling, politically-charged single on the threat of nuclear war. Note how Bambaataa also seems to prophecy the threat of Islamic terrorism eclipsing that of communism way before most of the pundits got around to doing so. I include this song to show that even vague, seemingly self-indulgent pleas on behalf of “humanity” can also make for some pretty good music too:
That’s it for now. Please include your suggestions for the “Stand up and Sing” contest in the comments section or email to email@example.com