Political songs in a moment of activism

I’ve been interested in political songs, as a writer and a listener, for a long time, and it seems, for reasons that may be obvious, that more songwriters are lately coming to share that interest. I want to share a few thoughts about how I think strong political songs work, and about how political songwriting, and political art in general, may be distinct from political activism.

What are political songs?

I find that my best political songs are very much like my other good songs. They are usually about a small number of characters and they spend time dealing with the events and emotions in the lives of those characters. They are lyric or narrative, rather than expository, didactic, allegorical, or persuasive. What makes them political is not their form, but their subject matter.

To me, the overarching subject of political songs is the relationship of individuals to power, and to other people, events and currents in the world that express the workings of power. That particular formulation probably reflects my own political leanings to some extent, but I think the important element for songs is that the individual is present in the song, and the song addresses the way that the individual experiences the political. In contrast, political speeches and essays rarely linger on the emotional experience of individuals, and when they do, those experiences are quickly tempered into the support of an argument.

An example of this is Woody Guthrie’s “Vanzetti’s Rock”, a song from an album consisting entirely of songs about Sacco & Vanzetti. In the song, Guthrie’s speaker visits Plymouth Rock and, surrounded by tourists invested in the history of the Puritan pilgrims, imagines dedicating the rock instead to the Italian-born anarchist who was executed for a murder he did not commit. The emotional core of the song – what makes it interesting even if the listener is not particularly invested in Guthrie’s politics – is the speaker’s alienation from the tourists around him. The other tourists are “salesman and gamblers” in dark glasses that shield them from the history that Guthrie’s speaker quietly contemplates. He imagines a different tourist attraction, dedicated to Vanzetti’s story, that would instead attract “trades-union workers” to Plymouth. This image captures the speaker’s own isolation – he is not really a part of either group, and unlike either group, his mind is invested in a world that does not exist.

There is still plenty of room in the song for more direct political appeals, but the scene sets an emotional context and transforms what would otherwise be a simple sentiment, easily accepted or dismissed, into something more complex and even a bit puzzling. Who is this character, wandering through tourist traps and imagining them transformed into monuments to an alternate history? What does it feel like to occupy that particular alienated mind?

In a moment of activism?

It can be challenging to reconcile the concerns of this type of political songwriting, which takes as its topic the particular, possibly eccentric experiences of its characters as they encounter the world and its structures of power, with the demands of political activism. The moments that make for some of the most interesting songs – moments of internal conflict or self-questioning, moments that reveal the contradictions in a character’s ideology, even moments of unexpected sympathy or agreement with one’s political opponents – are not necessarily the moments that political movements benefit from emphasizing. Political art can be slippery and defy interpretation. It can disappoint or even offend viewers and critics.
None of this is new, but to me it seems we have become more likely, as listeners and critics, to construct the writer or artist as a figure of power – someone whose position requires him or her to control the potentially dangerous or off-message resonances of the work. We are less likely to posit the writer or artist as a relatively powerless individual struggling to comprehend a complex world. Sometimes this perspective is justified – the director of a major Hollywood movie wields the bankroll and power of corporate America, and so it makes sense to treat his or her actions as the actions of a powerful entity.
I think political art is important because it addresses aspects of experience – particularly individual, interior experience – that other forms of political expression ignore. We live in a world where our daily experience is shaped by political powers far beyond our individual control, and we need art that explores that experience. If we construct writers and artists as if they were corporate spokespeople for their personal brands – as if they were part of the power structure that shapes our world – then it makes sense to react with disapproval when their work violates our expectations. This makes sense for corporate art, but applying the same model to work created by individuals who really are relatively powerless in the world may cause critics to misunderstand, or miss completely, the art that we really need.
It is easy, as a songwriter, to internalize this way of thinking about songs – to write with caution and to carefully police one’s own impulses in order to avoid appearing to cross an invisible line. But songs are a perfect place to work through impulses and experiences that can’t be condensed into a coherent position, essay, or social media post. Some of the best political songs come out of that process, full of self-contradiction, self-doubt, questions, and reality. Those are the songs that help us understand what it means to be human in a political world.

Anti-Poptimist Pep Talk for Songwriters

I picked Coke in the Pepsi Challenge

You don’t have to like pop music. You don’t have to respect it or care that other people like it. You can even enjoy it and not respect it or care about it.

You’re a songwriter. You probably have strong opinions about songs. Those opinions are important. If you cultivate them, they will help you write the songs you want to write. Those opinions will let you listen to your own songs in progress and be critical of them. They will let you listen to songs that intrigue and challenge you and learn from them.

Chances are that you find certain types of songs most interesting. There might even be songs that inspired you to write songs in the first place, and other songs that inspired you to keep writing. These are the best songs. It doesn’t matter if other songs are more popular. The songs that you love are the best ones. Stick to your guns! If you think Townes Van Zandt is a better writer than Bob Dylan (like Steve Earle does) cultivate that. If everyone had the same opinions about songs, we would all end up writing the same songs.

There is a lot of pressure at this moment for musicians and critics to take top 40 pop music seriously. Don’t. It’s not serious. It’s big business, and celebrity, spectacle but, at least as songwriting, it’s not serious. It’s not ambitious. It’s not interesting. There is ambitious songwriting in pop, but I don’t hear it very often in celebrity-driven top 40.

The impulse to take chart-topping music seriously is political. It provides thin comfort in a world where the influence of corporate culture is more and more absolute. Instead of resisting that influence, even in tiny ways, music criticism argues that corporate culture can be good enough, and that, in fact, corporate pop music is the model and standard that other forms of music, either overtly or secretly, aspire to follow.

But you’re not a critic. You’re a songwriter. A mildly comforting theory won’t get the job done, and feeling bad about the modern world might be part of your schtick, anyways. You need a car that runs, a dog that will actually hunt. You need your own aesthetic, one that reflects the stories you want to tell and the ideas that you want to suss out. Unless you’re actually writing for a top 40 record, the focus group is not arriving to help you decide which version of that verse works better. You are going to have to have an opinion.

Structural issues matter. Value judgements aside, there is a simple and observable difference between a person or two sitting down to write a song and a major label production team assembling to accomplish the same task. There is a difference in the process and a corresponding, observable difference in the product. The music you make is not a lesser version of corporate pop – it is a different thing entirely.

To me, one reason that music is important because it’s a forum where eccentric, diverse, individual voices can actually make themselves heard once in a blue moon. Poptimist criticism claims to advocate for diversity, but instead it reinforces the ubiquity of corporate pop, at the expense of individual voices.

Your music is weird and awesome. It is difficult and risky. It is offensive and beautiful. It is comforting to people who exist only in your imagination. Your friends’ moms like it better than your friends do, maybe. It is more powerful than you feel. It is hard to record, or hard to play live, or both, maybe. It is struggling to exist in the world. Music critics think they have heard it before, but they are wrong. Like your life, it is a thing that you have that is actually yours.


I haven’t posted in a while, but I wanted to put up links to two projects I worked on. The first is a piece of video art/scholarship that I made for the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. The piece is called Fountain: Scholarship and the Illusion of Permanence and it kind of brings together things I think about a lot at work with some ideas from the art and music projects I work on. The music is original, and the footage for the video was shot around Boston.

I also made a site called Newspaper Inspector which creates word clouds based on the digitized newspapers in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection.

And most exciting to me, the new album Pop Songs of the Everyday comes out on Tuesday!

Pop Songs of the Everyday

I’m almost done with a new record, which is going to be called “Pop Songs of the Everyday”. I’m super excited about it – it’s the biggest sounding record I’ve made in a long time, and I’m really happy with the songs.

I’m also excited about the idea behind the record – songs that take place, in one sense or another, in the everyday world. What that means, exactly, varies from song to song. Some of the songs describe everyday events, like a long drive in the snow or a walk in the city. Other songs are about the usual topics – love, politics, life in general – but they address those topics in a way that stays, or tries to stay, true to everyday experience.

For me, writing songs that stay true to the everyday was both restrictive and liberating: restrictive because it cut off many familiar approaches and ideas, but liberating when it eliminated the need for every song to have the highest possible narrative stakes, and opened up songs I wouldn’t have thought to write.

The everyday is hard to define, but it is this slippery, “know it when you see it” quality that makes it a promising concept for songwriters. For instance, writing songs of the everyday requires attention to the details of lived experience, but it doesn’t follow that the songs of the everyday must, or even should, be autobiographical.

Once I started deliberately writing the songs for this record, it became clear that a number of songs I had already written, and even some that I had already recorded, would fit the project, while other songs would not. The non-everyday songs aren’t bad – I like some of them a lot. But they depart from the everyday in some way, often because their characters are too mythological or allegorical for the confines of everyday life. Every real person has an everyday life, but I’m not so sure the same can be said for all fictional characters.

All of this may sound austere, but the sound of the record is anything but – the songs are packed full of sounds and instruments, and each song really has its own sound. I’m excited for people to hear the record very soon!

Out Alone, Late

I made this record in 2005, and it’s kind of a transitional record. I was trying to make a few things work at once – mixing real songs with some of the arrangement methods we were using in Hotel Universe and at the same time adding in new sounds. I bought an Alesis Micron, my first real synth, and started trying to program it. I think it all comes together on the record after this one, but here it’s a little bit of a jumble. Still, there are a few things I really like, especially the instrumental “Ashburn”, which starts with a harmonica/accordion vamp before the drum machines come in.

Small-scale music practice

A couple of things have me thinking about ways of cultivating small-scale musical practices, especially in places like Boston, where I live, where the cultural and economic situation can make that difficult. Watching celebrity-driven, culture industry events like the Super Bowl halftime show and the Grammys suck all the air out of the cultural conversation got me started thinking about this. Then I watched an interesting documentary – This Ain’t No Mouse Music – about Chris Strachwitz, founder of the folk label Arhoolie Records, who spent his life supporting musical traditions that were genuinely local – inescapably rooted in the rural South and Southwest.

But this piece, about the reasons why two local filmmakers and musicians are leaving Boston for LA, really struck me. I don’t want to address all of the really complex civic and cultural issues that the piece and the Facebook post that inspired it bring up. What I do want to write about is the kind of artistic practice I think we all could support better: small-scale, truly non-commercial practice.

One thing that I have observed over the past 20 years or so is that, as a society, we have a decreasing  interest and belief in non-commercial art, and especially in art that exists outside of our legitimizing institutions – outside of the major culture industries and their strange sibling, the international fine art market. This is reflected in our impoverished vocabulary for talking about this art. We don’t talk anymore about artists “selling out”. It’s hard to imaging using the phrase like “art for art’s sake” in a conversation about living artists, especially without air quotes. Online posts that simply point out the obvious vapidness of corporate pop are derided as “negative” or the product of jealousy on the part of less popular artists. We have been taught, gradually, to equate commercial success with quality, and to view art as a product in the market.

This ideology destroys small-scale art. With enough resources, it is certainly possible to create compelling work in the context of the international corporate economy. It is possible to use the vocabulary and resources of that world – to use celebrity, spectacle, and expensive creative teams to produce art that speaks to its audience in their role as citizens and consumers in our complex world. But that type of work relies on its proximity to the sources of that power – it feeds off the economic and cultural resources of a New York or an LA.

The art that exists outside of that context is different. Its scale and resources are human, not corporate. Its personal vocabularies stay personal; its inscrutable elements may stay inscrutable. I’ll put it this way: a new Beyonce video has more in common with a blockbuster movie or a Jeff Koons sculpture than it does with the music I work on. And yet I feel, strangely that my music must “compete” with and be judged against popular music. And, on its own terms, small-scale music does compete – it’s always been the best music, as music. But as spectacle, as cultural zeitgeist, as product – that’s a different competition.

I’ve thought a lot about how to develop my music so that I can sustain what I need to do artistically. For me, that’s meant learning to make the records I want to make on my own, in the time that I have. But one thing I find lacking in music is any sort of structure for legitimizing and rewarding really good work that’s not part of the music industry. And I think that stems from the fact that we don’t even have a vocabulary for that musical practice, even within local music scenes. We don’t believe, anymore, that there is such a thing as non-commercial art. We mistake non-corporate art for failed corporate art. Even when we recognize the difference, we are corrected and shouted down by a cultural consensus that, even at the most banal levels, equates momentary popularity with success.

And yet – how many of our cherished writers and artists were recognized in their lifetimes? Do we really think the future will be any different? I’m not saying I or you or anyone we know is making art that will last after their death. But I do think that it takes a lot of people trying to make that art to produce the one person who actually makes it. If we give up on that kind of work – and I do think that we are giving up on it – it won’t happen on its own.

The good news for musicians is that it’s actually feasible to work like a poet or a painter – to follow your own rules and create your own music. Recording technology has been at least partially decoupled from the music industry. There are more inexpensive recording and distribution options than there have ever been, whether you prefer to work at home or in a studio.

What would increased support for non-commercial art look like? Maybe it would take the form of shared infrastructure and facilities, or support for human-scale publishers and record labels. But maybe it would also include much smaller changes. Could Boston become a city where having serious artistic pursuits is normal, even expected – where it wouldn’t feel like something you should probably hide from your co-workers? What if there were a cultural understanding that sometimes art is neither a profession nor a hobby?

For me, Boston doesn’t necessarily need its own film or music industry to rival the ones in New York or LA or even Atlanta and Nashville. I mean, I wouldn’t turn it down, but it just seems unlikely. What it does need is thousands of people doing their own important creative work in a way that they can sustain over decades. I don’t know what it looks like to build a community where that’s supported, or even where it’s possible, but I do think one first step is to name and value the creative work that takes place outside of the culture industry and the art world. I’d bet everything that that’s the art that will matter in the end.

New old record – 2004 folk styles

Before I got a computer that I could record on, I made a lot of recordings straight to cassette. I had a four-track for complicated things, but more often I just recorded straight to a handheld cassette recorder, the kind you could buy for $30 at CVS or Radio Shack.

This isn’t one of those records, but it’s in that spirit. Live takes, as many songs a would fit on a CD, no overdubs, acoustic guitar and vocals, minimal processing. Some odd recording choices here – the vocal and guitar were on separate mics, and they are hard-panned left and right. I think it sounds cool on a decent stereo with the volume turned up – very close to the original sound in the room.

I was really invested in the idea of folk music – I think you can hear that in these songs – and I felt drawn to this recording style that was somehow supposed to be similar to a field recording. The panning idea comes from the first Bob Dylan record, which is not at all a field recording.

There are a bunch of songs here that hold up, I think. Silver Car is one that I still like to play.

Parts and structures of songs

You can do whatever you want in your songs! It’s great, and it seems obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to forget and feel like there are rules. One place where it’s easy to forget this is in the shape and structure of songs.

To put it simply, your songs don’t need verses and choruses and bridges. Maybe some of your ideas will work well in that structure, but others won’t, and the struggle to force them into it will be exhausting. It will feel like you’re stuck. But you’re probably not stuck – you might just be ignoring the obvious solution to your problem.

One way to deal with this problem is to know a lot about song forms from various genres. This is great if it’s something you can do – it gives you a broad vocabulary and makes sure you won’t be stuck with the limited structures available in most pop music. But it can be just as liberating to simply allow the song to grow on its own, following the story you want to tell and the musical ideas that occur to you. You don’t have to use a structure that’s been tested in other genres – you can create your own song structures and make them work for you.

Following the song in this way can lead to subtle or dramatic changes in how your songs come out. For instance, you may find that a verse-chorus forms work well, but that you get a lot out of subtle variations in the verse form – maybe one verse has a few extra bars and uses a different chord progression. Or you may develop personal ideas about song parts. I find that I get a lot out of codas and outros, on all kinds of song forms. Going to a coda at the end of the song allows you to go somewhere musically that you might not be able to come back from, and it’s a great opportunity to add a different tone or perspective to the song’s lyrics. You might even get lucky and develop an entire new vocabulary of types of parts for your own songs.

The pop song is a powerful form, but it brings a lot of baggage. If your song tells a story, how do you keep the chorus from weighing down the narrative like so much dead weight? If your idea is much longer or shorter than 3 minutes, how do you make it feel right to the listener, and not like a song that’s been truncated or artificially extended? Even if you usually write songs with verses and choruses (I certainly do), it helps to remember the range of options that exists out there. If you don’t know what goes in the second verse, maybe it’s time for the song to move on to it’s C, D, and E sections.

So here’s a song that sometimes feels like a pop song, and was even a little bit of a hit, but abandons that structure halfway through, before picking it up again at the end: