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Poli-Rock

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Two pieces in this week’s Blogcritics got me thinking about a trend that tends to push one of my critical buttons. It goes something like this:

hey, that new Sleater-Kinney album sure sounds great – has a lotta lefty political lyrics it, but, hey, that’s not important: what matters is the beat!

Or:
who cares if Jaguar’s co-opted the Clash’s “London Calling” for one of its ads – I never listened to the Clash for their lyrics, anyway!
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but this diminution of words can’t help but irk me. A great pop song works on both musical and lyrical levels, and downplaying either component is a critical cheat. My uncharitable guess is that some of the blogcrits may be attempting to get around an audience that they perceive as predominately neo-libertarian. (You know the type: their idea of individual freedom only extends to those who agree with ‘em.) But perhaps it’s just a variation of the ol’ rock-is-for-dunderheads-so-why-bother? routine.
I know it’s partially because my abiding love of rock ‘n’ roll was informed during the sixties, but I like good rock music when it gets political. To my ears, songs about 9-11 are just as valid as ones about the singer’s dick size – maybe more valid, ultimately. Great pop music is implicitly or explicitly in dialog with the culture around it (one of the things that kept Madonna relevant past the lifetimes of a dozen Britneys is her ability to remain attuned to the world). Sometimes that dialog is a political one. You may not agree with all the sentiments expressed (I know I sure don’t), but acting like they don’t matter does no service to the song or its audience.
(Quick correcting afterthought: I should note that the line I paraphrased about the Clash’s lyrics did not appear in Chris Daley’s original piece on the commercial, but in the comments section beneath it.)

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • http://www.artandlies.com/analog_roam Kenan Hebert

    Well, as both of the sentiments that got your dander up came from me, I feel I should respond.

    I agree that the lyrics matter, but I don’t think that the political views of a band matter ultimately. I don’t think the Clash’s lyrics are of light significance in the music, but I do think that their passion for the views expressed, and the poetry with which those words come out, is what elevates the music, not the politics. You may disagree with me on this point, but I do not think that rock and roll can change the world. I think it can only make the world burn brighter.

    Two words: Public Enemy. You can already smell where I’m going with this. Are the politics of Farakkhan an integral part of the music? Yes. Should those politics be ignored in favor of all of the band’s other virtues? Yes. A great number of people have collectively decided that the sound PE made was more important than to let it be dragged down by a little impassioned racism. I agree. You say, “You may not agree with all the sentiments expressed (I know I sure don’t),” and I’m with you all the way.

    My remarks were not intended to appeal to or circumvent any sort of particular political view — quite the opposite — nor to appeal to ignorance. I am dogmatic in only one regard: music is holy, and pure, and important, and when done well, timeless. It does certainly exist in relation to its culture, but if it does only that, its influence and significance fades. It must also have passion. I think music can contain ideas, but very seldom is it really about them. When it works best, it works on a level deeper than that.

  • http://www.artandlies.com/analog_roam Kenan Hebert

    One last little dig: Madonna? Relevant? Lord help us.

    (I do appreciate your critisism, despite everything. And I don’t imagine we’re really so different.)

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com/ Bill Sherman

    I agree with Kenan (who does a great music-focused blog, so I’m glad this debate gave me the chance to discover it), actually. I enjoy listening to and mentally parsing the politics of a good rock song (even one by PE), much as I can be entertained by a clever lyricist offering insight on the love roundelay (last really great one for me: the late Kirsty Macoll’s Tropical Brainstorm). But it’s also true that a more mundane set of lyrics won’t hurt a song if all the other elements are in place.

    Rereading Kenan’s reply, it occurs to me that one thing I love about great pop music is the way it can comment on a moment and be more timeless. So while Sleater-Kinney’s (or Springsteen’s or rowdy ol’ Steve Earle’s) take on 9-11 may not matter twenty or even five years from now, it does have resonance today.

    My favorite pop criticism is the stuff that attempts to encompass both currency and longevity, though clearly that balancing act can be tricky. One of the first Blogcritics pieces I remember reading, for instance, was Ken Layne’s take on the current Steve Earle controversy. It had a lot of good insights into the situation surrounding the much-discussed Lindh song, but the only thing I learned about the song itself was that it sounded like the Earle we know from I Feel Alright or Transcendental Blues. That’s not criticism; it’s reportage – though to be fair to Layne I think he meant it that way.
    In any event, I do think that I did Kenan a disservice with my original piece. From his response, it’s clear we broach pop music from two slightly different perches and that what I was misreading as avoidance was really just a difference in perspective.
    So . . . how about that new Mekons’ album, huh?<

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com/ Bill Sherman

    Oh yeah: a small clarification. By writing “one of the things that kept” Madonna relevant instead of “that’s kept,” I was hoping to avoid the suggestion that she’s presently current but instead note she was able to keep it going for over a decade – several lifetimes in the pop world. Still, Kenan deserves the chance to make his dig. . .

  • http://daleyweather.blogspot.com Chris Daley

    I love music but I’ve never been a musician. Can’t play anything and can’t read a note. I have always been more in tune with prose. As a result I listen to lyrics. That is why my favorite singer/songwriter is John Hiatt.

    But I recognize I am in the minority. Most of my friends have zero clue what songs are about. They are focused on the beat. The Clash were cool to my friends not because there was a deep understanding of their political views- I was in Jr. High at the time- but because the punk movement was the hot thing and because the beat moved them. I remember liking Rock the Casbah and having no idea what the politics of that song were. It was just a good song.

    I’m sure as they got older some of those 13 year olds embraced the political message of The Clash. But just as many moved on to other tunes, joined the Young Republicans or the Campus Crusade for Christ. I’m sure Jaguar or Nike wasn’t aiming at the true believers but those who harken back the nostaliga of their youth.

  • Scott Butki

    I was just doing a topic search of “lyrics” and came across this.
    I totally agree with this statement, partially cause it’s the writer in me:
    “hey, that new Sleater-Kinney album sure sounds great – has a lotta lefty political lyrics it, but, hey, that’s not important: what matters is the beat!

    Or:

    who cares if Jaguar’s co-opted the Clash’s “London Calling” for one of its ads – I never listened to the Clash for their lyrics, anyway!

    Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but this diminution of words can’t help but irk me. A great pop song works on both musical and lyrical levels, and downplaying either component is a critical cheat”

  • Steve

    Hey, Scott,
    I must confess, I’m in the music category as far as the lyrics vs. music debate is concerned.

    I guess I’ve heard too many bands say things like “we didn’t really have a specific situation in mind when we wrote the song, it could be applied to alot of things, so we encourage the fans to read into our songs whatever they want”. I believe that’s a paraphrase of something Depeche Mode said in an interview once.

    And then of course, there are the debates people have about who/what was being referred to in a particular song (I believe Bob Dylan has been the subject of discussions like those). So, for me, if a song has great lyrics, that’s a bonus, but if the music is good, and the lyrics aren’t too repetitive or profane, I don’t really care too much about the lyrics. If the music sucks, I’d rather read good lyrics in a book than have to listen to them with an awful musical accompaniment.

  • Scott Butki

    That’s a good point.
    But a good music album with bad lyrics is still not
    meeting its full potential.

  • Scott Butki

    Harley Davidson people are less likely, I think, to read lyrics to music.

    But that’s just a stereotype – I’m sure most really read William Burroughts and James Joyce in between road rallies.

    Some see trolls as annoying – I see it as a new writing exercise: finding something to fit their remark.