Microdisney, “Gale Force Wind” Thirty Nine Minutes (1988)
I have the cynical critic’s typical horror of “political” pop songs, but this one, by Microdisney, stuck with me. It’s clumsy in places, it has an unfortunate guitar solo at the end, and its message was so successful that it got all the way to No.98 in the charts. But it’s also true, and has only got truer since 1987.
Here’s the verse that has jumped into my mind at regular intervals since I first heard it back in 1993 or so, and jumped into my mind today, for probably obvious reasons:
“If a power were to lift him up / Make him rich, would he admit it was luck? / Or say he’d earned it and claim a state of grace / Just like the rich in this hateful place”
I wonder, though, why we cynical critics — and I am one of them — typically do possess a horror of political pop songs?
1. Most people’s politics are gauche, and pop stars are no exception. I think the politics of a whole bunch of people who are paid to think about politics are bunk. The ability to pen a tune doesn’t make your opinion special, and musicians, like the rest of the public, often don’t have opinions worth being heard outside the ballot box or representatives’ offices. No one expects political YouTube comments to be any good.
2. Pop music is poorly suited to politics. Political communication — and hence political music — is about doing things. Vote for this person, support that policy, be upset about this injustice. Pop music isn’t much good at telling people to do things other than dance, and even then it needs to offer a good beat as supporting evidence.
3. Most political songs don’t do what pop music is good for. What music is good for is making us feel things and sustaining communities. If I think of political pop songs I like — “A Change is Gonna Come,” say, or “Asking For It,” or “Fuck the Police” — I’m much more likely to think of songs that talk about the emotions associated with politics or remind me of the people with whom my interests and sympathies intersect.
4. Politics is too earnest. A critic starting out quickly learns that artificiality is inherent in pop music — never trust anyone who thinks authenticity is an achievable or worthwhile pursuit. Even an artist saying exactly what she means has to work out how to say it — and say it like she means it. (Writers should understand that.) We critics tend to like artists who negotiate the falseness of pop, who play with it and wryly comment on it. We get a bit uncomfortable around musicians who act as if their creativity were divinely inspired, as if they were a helpless conduit for their deepest beliefs. An artist telling us what he really thinks is behaving in a way pop critics often instinctively find a bit icky.
5. The communities surrounding politics are too earnest. As Mike Barthel wrote:
All of which points to why Morello is so wrong to concentrate solely on the explicit message of a group’s music when assessing their proper political interpretation. We know that protest movements build membership not only through the righteousness of their cause but the personal relationships the members have with one another; in Doug McAdams’ classic account of Freedom Summer members, those who took part in actions had closer ties to other members than those who stayed home. We also know that by finding other people who like the music we like, we end up in friendship groups strong enough to incorporate a whole lot of other activities besides music — activities like, say, politics.
In other words, the association of music with politics isn’t inherent to music but inherent to social groups. Protest happens through music not because of its artistic power, but because the people involved all like both protest music and protesting. Affinity leads to action. Moreover, “protest music” doesn’t mean music that gets us to protest, but music that is frequently heard at protests. That association of certain kinds of songs with political actions means those kinds of songs can then be heard, in the future, as political actions in and of themselves. If you get up in a church and sing a song, it’s a lot easier to parse as political speech because of all the other times people have stood up and sung a song to protest something. Crucially, though, the association is not with the message of that protest but the act itself.
We don’t tend to go to the protests so we don’t care about the songs important to them.
6. We’re bougie enemies of the resistance. I mean, just maybe?
Some of these are good reasons to be suspicious of political music and some are not. But which ones do we actually adhere to? Or does something else explain the despair I feel when I read interviews with musicians writing song cycles about the coming election? (Word to Ry Cooder.)