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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
Due to a number of unsympathetic (though much appreciated) comments, including a slightly confused podcast, on my article, War Songs...Huh! What Are They Good For?, I thought I'd try to explain further what I was getting at in that piece.

But first, by way of illustration, I want to cite the lyrics of a very obscure funk/soul artist from the 1970s, Eugene McDaniels, whose song "Freedom Death Dance" touches on the purpose of my article, if in a more poetic form. Here are the lyrics:

Everybody wants happiness
Everybody wants peace of mind
Everybody says we should ignore
the graves we dance upon
But I've really got news for you
There's no amount of dancing we can do

That will ban the bomb
Feed the starving children
Bring justice and equality to you and me
No amount of dancing
is gonna make us free

Gather round the riots, children
Everybody wants to dance
Gather round the murders
And be free

Gather round the breath of life
This could be your only chance
To be in touch
With your own humanity
oh yeah

(first verse and chorus are then repeated)

Bit of a downer, isn't it? I absolutely love it. Then again, I'm big on downers, in a George Orwell kind of way. Bursting people's comfortable bubbles is an important intellectual process. Including the bubble that says protest songs are, by themselves, real protests.

Now, Eugene McDaniels was a very political artist. The album that "Freedom Death Dance" appears on, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, was actually asked to be shelved by the vice-president under Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, who allegedly contacted the head of McDaniels' record company, the legendary Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegün, demanding that the album no longer be distributed or promoted. This is one of the reasons why the album remains so obscure, and Headless Heroes was the last record McDaniels released on Atlantic. If not for hip hop artists like the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest sampling and reviving his music for their own beats, he might not have been remembered at all.

What could have made Agnew so upset about the record? The album was obviously harmless. No revolution was going to come about simply from the release of an obscure record that's critical of the government. The album only reflected the social anxiety that was already there. It was caused by the social turmoil of black America, not the other way around: it didn't cause the turmoil. Agnew was probably just annoyed to be reminded of the reality of 1970s black America.

You could say even McDaniels acknowledged that with "Freedom Death Dance". He's not saying, "I have a political message here. Listen up and revolt." He's saying something much more modest, something like, "There's a political crisis going on. But my music isn't the solution. I'm just reflecting the reality around me."

Like I tried to show with Edwin Starr's anti-war song, "War, what is it good for?", many of McDaniels' songs have an edgy, uncomfortability about them. His voice is mostly operatic and beautiful, but he often screams and makes his voice rumble in way that captures the emotional and aesthetic chaos of what he's singing about, punctuating his lyrics with piercing "uh huh"s and "god damn!"s.

As I mentioned, McDaniels was a very obscure artist - what we would now call "underground". And maybe that's the crux of my argument. He could not have been a mainstream artist. To get on the radio and sell millions of records you have to, to a certain extent, soothe your audience and distract them from uncomfortable thoughts. No bubble bursting in the mainstream.

This is why I'm suspicious of mainstream protest songs. If they're allowed or are able to be popular, then the protest content of the song must not be central. The main point must be that they are entertaining. The anti-war content makes the audience feel like they're doing something political just by listening (or dancing). As McDaniels said, "No amount of dancing's gonna make us free".

Another "underground" artist who, in my opinion, released his best work in the seventies, like McDaniels, was Frank Zappa, who, by the way, named one of his children "Ahmet", after the aforementioned Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegün, who played a role in Zappa's early career.

Many of Zappa's songs were complex, dissonant, uncomfortable things to listen to, and the lyrical content was mostly social satire aimed at the popular culture and politics of America.

Zappa's politics even took him to Washington in 1985, where he testified to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records, arguing against the the proposal of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to have record companies enforce a rating system on record releases because of lyrics that, as the PMRC saw it, were harmful to children.

The PMRC was started by the so-called "Washington Wives", four women - including Tipper Gore, wife of then senator and later vice-president Al Gore - who had Washington-connected husbands. As Zappa told Option magazine at the time, commenting wryly on the connection between the PMRC wives and their committee husbands, "A couple of blowjobs here and there and Bingo! — you get a hearing."

In a more serious statement, one given as testimony at a hearing of the lyrics committee, Zappa, after quoting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - the one about freedom of speech - said, "The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design."

Here we have the intelligent and articulate voice of a musician whose intention was never simply to entertain, but to inform and provoke. His words, like his music, are forceful and discomforting, and therefore necessarily thought-provoking, even if the thought is only, "I don't want to think about that." Which is to say, you can't consciously ignore something without also acknowledging it. Good artists - important artists - force this kind of acknowledgment on the self-deceivers; the kind of acknowledgment that Spiro Agnew probably wanted to avoid when it came to the plight of blacks in his country.

But is this really the role of the artist? Or am I forcing my own view on the reader? Let's go back to Ancient Greece and see what Plato and Aristotle might have said.

Plato, as we probably all know, wasn't too keen on the artist, since the artist portrayed what he didn't really know anything about: he made copies of stuff that were already copies of Ideal Forms: pale imitations of pale imitations. The artist, according to Plato, has no role to play in an ideal state, beyond praising the state and composing hymns to its heroes.

Not only that, the artist often appeals to the irrational emotions of the audience, and for Plato, of course, the faculty of reason should dominate the passions. So art, for Plato, is out, unless it's state propaganda.

Aristotle, on the other hand, had a more balanced view. Rather than see the arts - particularly the dramatic art of tragedy - as dangerously emotional, as Plato had, Aristotle thought that art could drain from people the pent up emotions and give them a healthy release - which he called catharsis, or a purging of pity and fear - and thereafter the state and its people could go on with its rational business, since the otherwise distracting emotions had been dealt with through drama.

I think both Plato and Aristotle were wrong, though, at least in the moral sense. Maybe the artist doesn't know what he's talking about, and maybe drama does help clear away emotions that are disruptive to political authority. But those are not ethical claims, just "objective", metaphysical ones. Whether or not art should play a certain role - a moral, political role - is not the main focus.

Fast-forward 2500 years or so. Bertolt Brecht, the 20th century German playwright, poet and stage director claimed that theater should be the opposite of what Aristotle said it was.

Brecht, a committed Marxist of the same generation as quasi- or neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, both of whom I mentioned in the other article, flipped Aristotle's conception of the theater around. Instead of going to the theater and being purged of your emotions - hypnotized really - and then returning to the world ready to get on with your life without thinking of anything disruptive to politics, Brecht wanted the theater to shock the audience, reminding them that they are watching a contrived play, and by extension, that political life outside the theater is just as contrived and artificial, and therefore changeable. He called this Verfremdungseffekt, variously translated as the Alienation Effect, estrangement or distancing effect.

Brecht used unnatural lighting, changed sets with the curtains open, and let his actors hang out with the audience in between acts, all of which engaged the audience as active thinkers, rather than passive spectators whose emotions would be purged and who would be left with little or no motivation to think about politics. Brecht's goal - the opposite of Aristotle's - was to motivate the audience to political action, like Zappa, whose music provoked, informed, and made one uncomfortable enough to have to think. They both forced acknowledgment. they both burst bubbles.

Anti-war and protest songs, similarly, it could be argued, are about getting people riled up and ready for political action. But if the song is meant for entertainment, the effect is more like what Aristotle described: it distracts from reality and channels the emotions away from where they could be used for concrete political ends.

As long as people who think they're affecting "the system" by listening to anti-establishment music are, well, only listening to anti-establishment music, not much happens. Putting the onus on art to "free the minds" of the people ignores - dangerously so - the ways in which conventional politics can go about changing things. This is part of Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath's The Rebel Sell, which I also mentioned in the article.

Popularly distributed anti-establishment themes, ironic though that sounds, is a major feature of American culture, perhaps because of the revolutionary origins of the country, perhaps not. Either way, like Walter Benjamin points out with Fascism, there's a lot of aestheticized politics and aestheticized violence in America pop culture. Even the anger of, say, a Rage Against the Machine - which mimics the violence of war in its music, as I suggested anti-war songs should - takes the pain of war and makes it into a feel-good vibe of self-righteousness.

I have nothing against protest or anti-war songs. But I don't fool myself into thinking popular or entertainment music is some sort of effective, powerful political force. If anything, protest songs parallel the real activist fight that goes on, but they aren't, on their own, solid activism. They reflect activism and perhaps even enhance and reinforce it, but the activism is what matters, not so much the activism's ornamental theme songs. And at their worst, protest songs support the status quo by purging the emotional energy of their audience, making them think they're doing something when they're not.

So, yes, Eugene McDaniels was right. Everybody wants happiness. Everybody wants peace of mind. But we shouldn't let that individual desire for peace and happiness, and the satisfaction that a cathartic expression gives us, confuse us into thinking that by dancing we can bring justice and equality to you and me. No amount of dancing, he rightly says, is going to make us free.



Music is for dancing. Art as a persuasive form of media is as about as effective as mashed potatoes as a form of house insulation - it may work at first, but then it just rots and serves no purpose.

If an artist truly wants to persuade, they should write a persuasive essay and publish it. The counter-argument is obviously going to be that essays are less accessible to the masses than music is. But those masses are most likely going to listen to the music without being persuaded - the only people who will be persuaded are likely to be the very ones who would have just read the essay - that is, proactive people who are looking for their own opinions validated through any medium - be it music, essays, plays, paintings or what have you.

Speaking of more modern music - Dissent is a cash cow. There's money to be had if you sing against "the man." If Rage couldn't make a buck in being "political" they wouldn't be doing it. Perhaps they wouldn't turn to more Pop like music like the Backstreet Boys, but they'd find a way in which they could make their kind of music in a way that gets them the most notice, and subsequently the bigger bucks. I'm a fan of Rage, but I could care less about their political opinions. I just want to dance.

Punk music is the same. You can't be "punk" if you don't have something to whine about. And so people sing about anarchy, and the Machine, capitalism, etc. But they're not doing it because they are truly passionate about these topics. The type of music they want to play is Punk. As a prerequisite, they're pretty much required to sing something political, or otherwise cover songs from the 50s.

It's silliness then that someone would try being persuasive in a song, about how dancing is not effective. Of course it's not effective - and neither is a song pointing out it's ineffectiveness. Just play your songs music man, and let me dance.



Replying to alishahnovin:
I think you're right. Art isn't about persuading. Art makes hypothetical - that is, imaginative - statements, not assertive ones. In fiction or poetry there is no "I agree" or "I disagree". The imagination asks, "What if?", but it doesn't ask you to accept an argument - except perhaps an implied question that art criticism can tease out of it. Some think of criticism as parasitical on art, but I think criticism does what art can't do without it seeming too obvious; meaning, criticism can formulate the questions and assertive statements that would be out of place in the primary art.

I mentioned Aristotle in the piece. Something else he said applies here: that things like poetry apply to the universal, whereas something like the study of history applies to the particular. The poet doesn't make particular statements that are to be judged true or false, but the historian does.

When an artist wants to make an assertive statement, like you say, they can do it in a different medium or context, like Zappa at the offensive lyrics hearing. That said, a brilliant artist doesn't have to back up their art with rational political views. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were fascist and approved of flogging servants, respectively.

There's something condescending and just plain lame about art when it tries to be too didactic and preachy, although it's good when an artist has something interesting to say in and outside their art.

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