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.

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.

Folk music

“Folk music” is a dense, important, and contested concept. It doesn’t mean any one thing, so you may as well make it mean something that works for you and your songs.

The two best books I’ve read on the concept of folk music are The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus and How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. The Marcus book is pretty well known – it’s about Bob Dylan and the Band writing and recording the music that became the Basement Tapes, and tells a convincing story about exactly how certain themes and styles from obscure depression-era performers entered the pop music vernacular through Dylan and the Band.

The Fahey book is a collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes which, taken together, give a clear and complex picture of the guitarist’s relationship to folk music. Assembled from clues sprinkled throughout the book, Fahey’s history of folk music might start with the invention of folk music as an academic project of 19th century Germans and break apart with the ascendance of radio and television, which essentially dismantles the oral culture that the academic song collectors saw as the hallmark of the folk. By the time Fahey is working the folk festival circuit, very few of the performers can qualify as true members of the vaunted folk, attached to a pre-modern, oral culture.

Though Fahey is skeptical about the category of folk music, both as an abstraction borne out of academia and as a commodity marketed to a middle-class audience, he is clear that his own music is grounded in aesthetic concepts closely associated with folk music. One set of these concepts revolve around the guitar, around the importance of playing with a mix of open and fretted strings and, relatedly, the value of playing in a range of tunings to unlock the potential of the instrument. This approach to the guitar is not simply a matter of technique, a neutral way of achieving a pre-determined goal. Rather, it strongly favors certain approaches to harmony – choosing a tuning becomes the most critical step in composition or arrangement, and each tuning contains a certain unique set of possibilities and tendencies.

One implication of this approach is that guitar techniques, rather than being shared among all instrumentalists, are deeply personal – a player might guard his personal tunings and chord shapes jealously, or share them with a select few. For Fahey this secrecy introduces an enduring mystery around the music which shapes its aesthetic impact, and is only enhanced by other trappings of the genre, especially the improbable pseudonyms used to escape record contracts, or in Fahey’s case, to deliberately reproduce that mystery.

There are a lot of interesting things about John Fahey’s music, but to me one of the most interesting is this idiosyncratic relationship to folk music. Taking a step back and thinking about Fahey’s approach to genre in general, we see that this approach – at once self-aware and visceral – might be available in a wide variety of settings and genres. Moving past a superficial understanding of genre is like learning to play in a new tuning – it opens up a new world of creative possibilities.

Question your relationship to genre

Genre is critical to songwriting! To my ears, no songwriter is truly above genre – no songwriter I’ve heard is so unique that a critical listener can’t place the genre or genres that gives the songs context. Performers can transplant songs from one genre of music to another, but this is often an interesting move because the song retains the flavor of its original setting. Moving the song to another genre produces an interesting musical moment because of the tension between the song and its setting.

As a songwriter, genre is one of your most powerful tools, but harnessing that power will require a sophisticated view of the genres you work in. The ways genre works musically – the characteristic chord progressions, melodic turns, and rhythms that define musical genres – are often discussed. What is often left out are the ways that a song’s lyrics and lyrical themes are equally a part of its relationship to genre. Genres of music carry characteristic lyrical concerns. These are not rules – your country songs don’t have to be about trucks, and your ballads don’t have to be about love. One way to think of these characteristics is as audience expectations: if you start to play a certain type of song, listeners will immediately have their guesses as to what the song will be about. But you aren’t trapped by those expectations – understanding genre allows you to fake left and go right. You can do this gently, delighting your audience by tweaking their expectations, or take it a step further to really shake them up.

One reason this kind of writing can be difficult is that we are deeply invested in the genres we write in, and it can feel awkward or even painful to look at them with a critical eye – it’s a little like hearing your speaking voice recorded or seeing a candid photo of yourself. Take folk music – a genre I feel a certain commitment to. What does it mean, in 2015, for someone who lives in an urban setting to profess a commitment to folk music? What’s the connection between various related sub-genres, between coffee house singer-songwriter fare and ballads passed down through an oral tradition? Can I write the songs I want to within the expectations set by a specific genre, or do I need to bend and twist the boundaries to get where I need to go?

Chances are that, whatever genre of music you write, your relationship to that genre is complicated. To borrow a phrase, musical genres are often copies with no original. You might see a performer who deeply inhabits the persona and culture of a particular genre and say, “that’s the real deal, for sure,” only to have the illusion broken when you find out where the person grew up, or where he lives now, or what her politics are, or any detail that reminds you the performer is a whole person and not just a stage persona. But that is as real as it gets.

What this means for songwriting is that the most interesting and authentic moments may come when you break your own chosen genre’s rules of authenticity. In order to say the things you have to say, you may need to develop a deep and idiosyncratic relationship to the genres you write in.

Noise folk – is it a thing?

Sometimes I think of the music I want to do as noise folk, but is that even a thing?  I spent a little time today listening to the noise folk tag on band camp, just to see if other people think it’s the same thing I do.  There’s some intense stuff there, but I wanted to draw what little attention I can to two records that are pretty great, and have a real connection to what I think noise folk might be.

Red Wasp by Victor Florence is sweet and easy, with an edge that feels unforced.  The songs walk the line between worn-in and familiar, and the production style is forceful without being abrasive.  Florence has some other records that push harder against traditional forms and feel more collaged, and those are worth checking out as well.

Tucker Theodore’s To Make the Sun Hurt manages to be more noisy and more folk at the same time. Released as a cassette by Antiquated Future, the record oscillates between lo-if and destroyed, with feedback threatening to overwhelm the sound of acoustic guitar and vocals. Really strong finger-style guitar manages to push through the mix. Field recordings are an obvious point of reference, but the record doesn’t devolve into a genre exercise. Like finding a letter from your great-grandfather under the hood of your car.

Grab bag reviews: Fairweather Currents

So I’m going to try something new: record reviews!  Starting with something I’m going to call grab bag reviews.  Once a week or so, I’m going to go look at the new records from Boston in Bandcamp, find one or more thing that I like, and do some kind of review.  I’m going to write out my ground rules here, since this is the internet and that seems to be the kind of thing people do:

  • Positive reviews (why write about things that aren’t good?)
  • Focus on genres I care most about: home recording, singer-songwriter, hip hop, maybe some experimental or electronic stuff if I’m in the mood
  • Local!  Extra points if there are songs are about Boston, because that will make me like them.
  • Obscurity.  If it feels like no one else will review the record, that is a good reason to review it.

Five wordy, hushed, self-conscious, charming, home recorded songs.  The narrative that emerges is of one more college student new to Boston, trying to make sense of a new environment,  The cover is the Huntington Avenue Y.

Dylan Citron sings in a voice so gentle it can seem androgynous and strums on a dry, thin, acoustic guitar.  Crowd noise from parties, distorted drum machines, vocal samples, and slow, melodic piano lines all take their place in arrangements that are familiar but not stale or derivative.

The last song, “The Times Are Never-A-Changin'” drifts slowly over a piano arpeggio, punctuated by the crunching up and down of the piano’s sustain pedal.  The lyrics suggest a young narrator grappling for his own relationship with the violence in the world around him, and the song ends with a brief sample of a gospel recording.  As the title suggests, it’s a protest song that doesn’t know quite what to say, and it’s one of the highlights of a really nice EP.

Willis Earl Beal (The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art)

I saw this show last summer, at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brookyln.  You can hear people laughing when Willis Earl Beal starts to sing.  His performance was both awkward and great.  He wore a cape, and at one point he brought out a whip.  The opening band was a really slick jazzy R&B outfit with a large band, but Beal mostly sang over a reel-to-teel tape deck.  He played guitar lap-style on one or two songs, in a way that suggested someone eating with the wrong end of a fork.

The Pitchfork review of Beal’s new record contains the sentence “At one point last year, he even told Time Out Chicago he wanted to be an outsider artist, somehow forgetting that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is not knowing you’re an outsider artist.”  But is it really possible that celebrated outsider artists, the famous ones like Daniel Johnston or Thornton Dial, don’t know how they are described by the art world, that they are somehow shielded from the many portrayals of themselves and their work that have appeared in various media, or, even more outlandish, that they somehow aren’t capable of understanding those portrayals?  These are not stupid people.

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag, Thornton Dial, 2010

Maybe the rule Beal really missed is that one of the conditions of being an outsider artist is pretending you don’t know you’re an outsider artist.  The first rule of outsider art is don’t talk about outsider art.

But why would someone like Beal, blessed with a booming and versatile voice and skilled in a popular but rarely-heard-these-days vocal style, want to be an outsider artist?  What is the benefit of being an outsider when you might be able to be an insider?  He could sound like Aloe Blac if he wanted, right?  Well, one of the advantages is awkwardness.  This is a particularly powerful strategy in popular music, where being able to portray a cool person is a prerequisite.  If you don’t have to be cool and everyone else does, you can do and say a lot things other people won’t or can’t.

Of course, not all of what is considered outsider art is awkward.  Thornton Dial’s art isn’t, but Daniel Johnston’s art and music often is.  Still, the freedom to be awkward in performance may be one of the reasons Willis Earl Beal says he wants to be an outsider artist.

What happens when awkwardness becomes an aesthetic strategy?  What is the difference between a confrontational performance and an awkward one?

Robert Johnson

A friend once asked me a question that boiled down to: is it OK for rich white people to listen to Robert Johnson.  I think she had a specific picture in mind, a wealthy young stockbroker, maybe a little like the main character in American Psycho, but instead of Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis, he puts on “Hell Hound on My Trail”.

This kind of question begs another question – if it’s not OK, then what is it?  Is it problematic, in the critical theory sense?  And if it is, what is the moral weight of the problematic – is being problematic a major sin or a minor infraction?  Is it inherently racist, somehow, to enjoy Robert Johnson?  Are there racist and non-racist ways to hear him, as well as a whole spectrum of kind-of-racist but kind-of-not-racist responses in between?

How important is Robert Johnson, as an individual musician, in the history of American popular music?

Critical.  Indispensible.

If he hadn’t of done it somebody else would have?

Maybe, but I don’t actually believe it.

Just a placeholder, an archetype, a mythic figure, a story somebody told to make sense of the dozens (hundreds, thousands?) of similar musicians roaming the delta swamps?  An arbitrary obsession of white, mostly British rock musicians and their legions of boomer fans.

Maybe for some people.  But I think there is something else there.  Not primarily in the guitar playing or singing, though those are certainly impressive and often imitated, but in the songwriting.

Robert Johnson’s narrative approach, his logic, his use of non-sequitor, his ability to take someone else’s verse and place it in a new setting where it resonated both more deeply and more strangely, to make the generic personal again, feels original to me.  In my own imagined history of the world, Robert Johnson’s records are a place where the rules of narrative, of the kinds of sense a folk song, and eventually a rock song, could make, changed.  The rules changed, but somehow no one heard about the change until decades later, when songwriters took advantage.  Bob Dylan, of course, but others too.

One quality Johnson and Dylan share is the ability to move unpredictably between lyrical and narrative modes, to use narrative forms for lyrical purposes and vice versa.  The broken mirror quality of the language is one of the modernist elements of both of their work.

Can Robert Johnson be the source of Dylan’s modernism?  Because I think there is a narrative out there, stated or assumed, that the techniques of modernism enter the songwriting tradition through figures like Dylan and Leonard Cohen, songwriters with an awareness of or connection to modernist or beat poets.  But what if there is a strain of the songwriting tradition, of the blues tradition, that already includes many of the same techniques and ideas?  Do we like that story any better?

It makes me thing of the role of African masks in Picasso’s painting.  It isn’t only a question of appropriating shapes and images; shapes and images are capable of carrying philosophical concepts from one person to another, often covertly, as if they were smuggling them across an international border.  Shapes and ideas, sounds and stories, have their own agenda.  Aside from whatever moral or ethical questions may or many not surround cultural appropriation, there are practical problems, akin to playing with fire or cooking with unknown and poorly understood ingredients.  And yet, appropriation is one of the core techniques of modernism.  It is the way he appropriates and re-contextualizes existing songs that makes Johnson’s work singular.

The Johnson myth has something to say here.  In the myth, he never plays the diligent apprentice, never transcribes solos or sits at the feet of the father.  I’ve seen two versions: he either learns a few chords, or more likely an open tuning, and then woodsheds for six months, emerging fully formed doing things no one else can, or he sells his soul to the devil and gets the same results.

The part of the myth that rings true is this: Johnson’s music represents a leap forward, an act of individual genius.  His innovation is not inevitable.  He made it happen, and without him it would have turned out differently.

If you hear this when you listen and appreciate Robert Johnson as a critical figure in the history of American popular music, I don’t see how anyone could begrudge you the right to listen to shitty, clipped, hissing recordings of him playing guitar on your audiophile stereo while you take off your Armani suit.*

*Unless the objections are purely economic, in which case I don’t know how to help you.  There’s no changing the fact that he died broke, and it seems that his estate has been able to collect royalties on sales of his records after his death.