The Usual Excuses
Bowery Electric’s “Freedom Fighter” is bewitching and worrying, and not just because it was made by a band I’d put down as America’s most useless. In fact the beat Bowery Electric use on “Freedom Fighter” sounds as familiar as ever, but that for once works in the song’s favour, in the same way as the ‘boring’ chorus in “Hip Hop” does – it slows the tune down, adds a layer of numb menace. It’s the rhythmic equivalent of a drone – where Bowery Electric used to go wrong of course was in putting the rhythmic equivalent of a drone behind the drone equivalent of a drone and the resulting drone-squared was like a banquet of cardboard.
Anyhow “Freedom Fighter” came out years ago, but I avoided it because it was them. It found Bowery Electric getting lyrical and tuneful, and sampling Nick Drake (clever move), and ending up like Saint Etienne rewriting Disco Inferno’s “Last Dance”. It kicks off with lady Electric singing “We hold these things to be true…”, and next verse she says “Another day, another world war”, and there’s stuff about TV bombing – she’s against – and she says she’ll go out like a freedom fighter. You can hear sirens in the background. So you know in other words that this is a Political Song.
“So what’s it about, then?” About? Oh. Ah. It’s about politics. And bombs. And she mentions “sand” which might be a Gulf War reference. Look, it’s got sirens in it – what do you mean, what’s it about?
Of course we know what “Freedom Fighter” is about. This is the worrying bit. Like most political songs nowadays, it is about the texture of the political, about a vague sense that something somewhere in the world is bad. Actually, not even that, it’s about a less-vague sense that a song which implicitly reminds you of politics is quite good really, whereas a song which was actually about the Gulf War or freedom fighters would be, for certain, uncool.
Politics – explicit politics – in pop music is not cool. The Manic Street Preachers, political pop’s only large-scale exponents, have often been cool, and being political was a part of what made them cool, but it wasn’t the point. The point was the looks and the ferocity, and after 1995 the size and the suffering nobility, and politics might tint that, add a bit of spice to the PR campaigns, but little else.
Unease, though, is cool. Unease is the texture I mentioned – it’s the traditional alternative angst magnified to a global level, a fretful paralysis in the face of, well, everything. The classic example is OK Computer of course, a sonically arresting record which you knew was deeply politically engaged but listening to it you couldn’t quite put your finger on how. “Freedom Fighter” sounds little like Radiohead but it’s in the same tradition, along with Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s monumental vagueness, and Primal Scream’s current incarnation.
XTRMNTR is a record which has been painted as howlingly, defiantly, political but is actually almost entirely contentless. Listening to it you learn that a lot of people have swastika eyes and that the ‘telepaths’ are in danger of being exterminated. The buzz is all in the tone of the record, the punk-jazz references, the packaging, Bobby Gillespie’s combat gear and shades: every tiny detail shouts “WE ARE ANGRY” at you, and that’s all it shouts. What are they angry about? Search me. Reading the band’s interviews, the anger seemed mostly directed at unfortunate journalists who’d dared to enquire why exactly PRML SCRM had such a mad on. Wasn’t it obvious?
Radiohead’s unease and the Primals’ cut-up radical chic are good ways for pop music to embrace the ‘real world’ and so prove its relevance, but also to avoid the embarrassments which have attended previous, less-frothy political records. Now that progressive rock is, if not rehabilitated, at least generally seen as well-meant, chestbeating political rock is one of the few things critical orthodoxy really can’t be doing with. The outspoken bands and songs of the mid-80s and early-90s – from the Redskins to the Style Council, from Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Fascism” to Consolidated – find few fans now. Hip-hop, on the other hand, found rock-critical favour as a political form and is constantly urged to return to it – the “new Public Enemy” tag is as cringe-making as the “new Sex Pistols” used to be, and nobody stops to mention that PE’s political lyrics are just as trite as Weller’s ever were.
Triteness is seen as the problem with political pop in general: it’s one of three accusations which critics generally level at political bands and themes. They are simplistic; they are prescriptive; they preach to the converted. All three are true, but are based on only one model of how politics and pop music mix. The model works like this: a band forms with strong political principles. They write songs to articulate those principles and are ruthlessly critical of those who do not share them, or who buy records and products which seem to deviate from them. The intention of the songs is to persuade their listeners of the rightness of the band’s argument.
Now judged on this model, all political bands are abject failures. They can’t articulate their politics with any kind of coherence in a five-minute rock song; their prescriptive attitudes towards consumption turn off listeners; and the number of new converts is desperately few. About the only thing you can say in favour of the model is that a band working from it simply does not care what any wider listenership or popular culture thinks. All it cares about are the fans.
And therein lies the problem – this model of political pop is entirely dependent on the fans understanding the band. It allows for no noise in the signal, for no interpretation, for nothing but a binary sympathise/not decision on the fans’ part. But this is not how pop fans work – they might ignore the lyrics one listen and half-hear them another, they might not understand or not care about the specifics, they might radically reinterpret them, they might buy a 2 Live Crew and a Public Enemy record on the same day – who knows what they might do?
So what I think the political artist has to do is make music with some principles – some defined and clear beliefs, not just unease or rockstar rage – in mind, and hope they carry through into that music. If that can be done with articulate, argumentative lyrics, fair enough – but perhaps better to do it through suggestion and inspiration, to use songs as foundations on which the listener can build something of their own. And then when the songs are released, the artist should forget about them – explain them if asked, but don’t worry about them, don’t force understanding.
Where political pop goes wrong is in setting itself goals. A songwriter writes about how the WTO should be demolished. The WTO is still there. Ergo the song has failed. The second greatest lie told about pop music is that it can change things like that: it can’t, it’s too capricious, it breaks all such promises. But the greatest lie told about pop music is that it can’t change anything. It just doesn’t leave fingerprints, is all.