Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Music and Politics

Well, I'd not planned to do any more posts this year, but as I'm sure my fellow bloggers know, wandering in the merry land of youtube can often spark random posts, so...

Did you all know/remember that Melle Mel, Hall & Oates, Lou Reed, George Clinton, Pat Benatar, Joey Ramone, Nona Hendryx, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, and Jimmy Cliff once made a record together!? Ok, ok, so it wasn't so much a collaboration as a cooler "We Are The World", but still...

...and just like that, I'm 10 years old again.

Watching this, hearing a Phil Ochs song again recently, and re-watching the "History of Violence" video I'd posted a while back got me thinking about music and politics.

I'm hardly saying anything new here, but it seems to me that explicitly political art is one of the firmest taboos in our culture. It's not to say that such art doesn't get made, but it is too often either dismissed outright or praised in inverse proportion to its political outspokenness. "It hit me over the head with the issue" is a horrific charge, and "Even though it was about [insert issue here], it didn't preach at me" is a ringing endorsement.

Now, I myself (perhaps because I've internalized some of this anti-didactic prejudice) am not one to nod my head to Cornel West "rapping" or anything like that. But on the other hand, we should note that 'apolitical' art often ends up serving some hideous political agendas, precisely because it avoids certain topics and tones. More importantly, some fine fucking music has been made that was explicitly designed to "hit you over the head" and "preach". A recent example is Immortal Technique's track "Tell The Truth" f/Mos Def and Eminem. It has the savviest 20-second explanation of the Iraq "insurgency" I've heard yet and the ill lines (aimed at the Bush administration) "So I'm strapped like Lee Malvo/Holdin' a sniper rifle/These bullets'll touch your kids/And I don't mean like Michael"

Then there is the legendary Detroit anarchist band the Layabouts. "No Masters" from 1984 was perhaps their...err...masterwork, though they're still doing their thing today. I have fond, fond childhood memories of this record. They were family friends, and my stepmother played with them off and on. British punk-minded expats in the hood hook up with Latino drummer, various (30+ over the years) Detroit-based makers of reggae, rock and African music... What's not to like? A few favorite tracks:
I'm Tired
Too Late (sung by Milton Bennet)

Finally, I really wanted to put some Phil Ochs stuff up here, but almost everything out there in quasi-public-domain-land stinks. Too bad. "When I'm Gone" is one of the most beautiful songs ever...