The Daily Bork

May 26, 2005

Political pop

While cruising the channels last night I came across a program called something like "The story of pop and politics". I say something like, because it was titled in Swedish but apparently a German production so who knows how the German->Swedish->English Chinese-whispers thing went.

Anyway. It was about "pop" and politics, here pop apparently broadly meaning music that the German producers liked to link to politics. Now it was fine for potted histories of such things as punk, hip-hop and reggae. But the politics? Ah, well it seemed on the surface what you'd expect. All the usual people out to make a difference through their music, giving voice to the oppressed or whatever, etc etc. On some reflection it was much less than that.

For one thing, it was very focussed on two or three narrow streams. One, the "folk" protest type movement of the Vietnam era. Two, punk and its varieties. Three, "black American" music.

This immediately gives it a heavily American flavour, apart from the punk thing which mainly focussed on Britain. This I suspect is due to the producers being German and what they view as political music in Germany, at least since the Second World War. One useful notion that was reinforced is, yes, German hip-hop is atrocious.

So we had various well known faces scrolling past, from Bob Marley, to Dylan, to Ice T and many more. The immediate impression was, why are these people all so vacuous in their beliefs? I mean, Springsteen was on there and basically couldn't form a coherent thought into a sentence about anything, let alone anything political. No wonder he was such a failure as a campaign aid in the last US presidential elections. Then we had Ice T in his earlier days blithering on about free speech and how it was good but that he couldn't say everything he liked so really the constitution was not all it was cracked up to be. Somehow blithely missing the point he was on TV saying exactly what he pleased and that congress was passing no laws to stifle him. There were a variety of others in a similar vein.

Then there were what one might call the pasty white guys. For some reason these were all old white guys, I suspect music producers or aging former movers-n-shakers (and Martin Sheen for christ sake, sitting on a park bench holding a pair of spectacles and looking concerned, or perhaps constipated, as he pontificated about something being lost from the 60s. I think he may have lost his stash or something equally tragic). They had nothing but positive statements about everything to do with every style of music and every artist. The dribble about hip-hop was the most egregious. Without a doubt the music gave voice to people who wanted to be heard. But, is it really possible to say nothing at all negative about the subculture that grew around it? Is it really honest to say that every rapper has something valid and valuable to say? There was one, who I didn't recognise, who gave a speech about the kids not knowing anything about politics but knowing the music and that the music has to give them the information to go out and vote etc... but then the lyrics he was pushing were so blatantly biased in favour of one party (curiously, the party of Sen. Robert "KKK" Byrd, go figure) that it contradicted his desire to get the kids engaged. As always, beware of anyone "doing it for the kids". There was also one who dribbled on about institutional racism. The thrust of his argument was that now he could eat in restaurants without being turned away at the door, but people still didn't want him their. Who knows, maybe they don't, but it did sound like an effort to justify a continuing anger to sell to the kids.

Noticable by its absence was anything other than these narrow views of pontificating rappers, aging hippies and somewhat obscure music people. I guess it doesn't play well in Germany, but I suspect country music is/was at least as influential in American politics as hip-hop has been but for a less "noticable" crowd. Curiously there was nothing about the old blues guys, from whom so much is derived. But maybe that isn't so big in Germany either, or maybe it is out of their time-frame (ie not Vietnam onwards).

Some counter-pointing to the pervading attitude of all voices being valuable and positive would have been useful. I'm sure there was a lot of politically inspiring music in Germany through the 20s and 30s, articulating the desires of an oppressed people and giving lift to their desires. Not to mention the stirring numbers composed for the various workers revolutions. I'm sure they were valuable and positive voices then too, just not necessarily in the rear-view mirror of history.

The irony is that most of these people interviewed have been wildly successful. What are Ice Cube and Ice T doing now? Has Springsteen left to take up residence in his beloved Havana? Nope, the system they called for the demise of has given them more than they could have hoped for. Not without changing some along the way of course, but not by being torn down.

Which leads to the thought. When is the struggle over? There are still poor people, poor black people, drugs etc etc. But when does the "movement" become anachronistic and counter-productive? Clearly the protest-folk thing died a while ago. Antiwar music in general has become trite since Vietnam as people realise that sometimes blind opposition is not the answer. Hip-hop and its offspring is no longer what you could really call such a movement, being wildly successful commercially with celebrities galore and every kid in very neighbourhood listening to it. Just like the vacant singer from Coldplay railing against capitalism it all sounds so incredibly childish.

And of course the music quickly becomes dated and lacks an enduring quality, except for those that held it up as their message. Which is why I in general have an intense dislike for political music, the fact that listening to the lyrics just makes you want to say "what a bunch of posey wankers" even if the music itself is great. Musicians are very rarely skilled political thinkers.

Oh, and German hip-hop is *still* crap.

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