At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I must admit I was dismayed to hear the interminable collaboration between Josh Groban and the often wonderful Ladysmith Black Mambazo when it invaded the airwaves recently. Whatever subtlety the song had in its original context had been lost, and replaced by something lush, clamorous and vaguely self-congratulatory. By the time the last “say I, say I” had faded into silence, I felt as if I had been co-opted into someone’s Sunday School picnic version of nation-building in Africa.
There was a time when I believed that music could seduce us into becoming nicer, more tolerant people as opposed to, say, sharper and more complex ones. Certainly when I was growing up in the ‘eighties, I looked back to the ‘sixties as a remote, heroic age that took the redemptive power of its music seriously. Those singers had a “message”, they really believed, in the words of Graham Nash, that “we can change the world.”
Looking back today, it’s easy to see that Nash’s optimism, shared by so many of his contemporaries, was misplaced, and that the music it produced hasn’t always dated well.
The relationship between popular music and politics is obviously much more complex and mysterious than we supposed. Sometimes, in the hands of Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle, one does find a good song that is politically slanted or stirs the blood on a particular issue – Earle has famously spoken out against the death penalty, Springsteen against the war in Iraq. But more often it’s the internal politics of the listener that is probed and excavated. When Dylan stopped writing protest songs and chose instead to explore the many characters and voices that inhabited his own inner world, many fans were shocked, but the gift to all of us has been immeasurable.
The best persuasive songs are often personal rather than universal, and often sung in the voice, put into the words of a particular character – Dylan’s With God On Our Side, Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars, Steve Earle’s Ellis Unit One from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Such songs are often about characters who don’t have all the information, whose perspective on their own lives is limited. At the end of With God On Our Side, we have more insight than the troubled man speaking in the song, and our uneasiness grows with our knowledge. Similarly, in Randy Newman’s ironic Political Science 101, the character representing American foreign policy seems so reasonable on the surface that his injunction, “let’s drop the big one now”, catches us off guard.
In this country we have had our share of songs with a social conscience, many of them only known to a very few (David Kramer’s Tjoepstil is a good example). Weeping, by Bright Blue, was in its time such a song, drawing an allegorical picture of a frightened man with a demon tied up in his back yard which mirrored the fear of those in power at the time. It was briefly played on the radio until a DJ recognised the references (still subtle in those days) to Nkosi Sikilele Afrika in the choruses.
There was something poignant about the song, which had a lot to do with its timing: it was written at a time of widespread uncertainty, on the eve of the unbanning of the ANC and SACP in 1990. Needless to say, subsequent cover versions of the song tend to miss the point.
Perhaps songs of persuasion and protest need a particularly rich soil in which to grow. Perhaps such songs are germinating as I am writing this. Attending a recent gig by the spiky and hugely talented Syd Kitchen has encouraged me. Here’s to hoping it’s true.