Saturday, November 26, 2005

On Songs

Following some stoushing below on the merits of Steve Earle's political songs I thought I'd expand a bit on what I mean.

At Tamworth this year, me and my mate Terry went to the Northern Territory Showcase at the Family Hotel. One woman sang a song she had written about the Boxing Day tsunami. This was mid-January so the full horror of the tragedy was still unfolding and had a real visceral effect on us all. Still does, I remember first hearing about it on a lazy Boxing Day in the country, catching a snatch of the news during the cricket, maragrita in hand and I'm sure it'll occupy some of our thoughts on the anniversary this year.

Anyway, the song's refrain went something like this:

There was a big wave
Lots of people died
It was very sad.

The verses followed a similar ... And Then This Happened line. Call me a cold-hearted cynical bitch, but such dead literalism makes me physically flinch. No matter the nobility of the sentiments, get me outta here. Afterwards, Terry and I discussed what it was that made such a song so painful and other songs so sublime. The word "mystery" came up. No mystery, no breathing room and they leave us nowhere to go.

I think of "full stop songs" and "dotdotdot songs."

This became very clear to me when I listened to Earle's Jerusalem and Springsteen's The Rising which came out about the same time in 2002. Both were touted as important post-September 11 albums, many reviews dealt with them together and both are by artists whose new CDs I will buy without question.

I've pretty much expressed my view of "Jerusalem" (the song) elsewhere: it is an absolutely banal collection of sick-making cliches. It takes a issue on from the front, and works its way through via the easiest, cheapest, point A to B route. It doesn't matter that the sentiments (peace good, war bad, won't somebody think of the children) are perfectly inoffensive and, even, noble. It is a full stop song. When it ends, it ends. The meaning ends, the impact ends. No spillover outside its own words, into your life. It has no echo, no shadow, no hint of being part of a larger canvass.

The dead hand of impeccable intentions squeezes out the listener, who can do nothing but listen passively and nod along. We know the larger context of course, but we don't know it from the song, and from the song we get no hint of anything more than itself.

If I can clumsily switch metaphors, the full stop song is a piece of cloth tightly hemmed with no loose threads. The dotdotdot song is a bit shaggier, with some strands hanging loose. Strands you can play with, twist around your fingers and tug a little to see where they go. Jerusalem, and I would argue pretty much all of Stevo's latter day big-P Political songs, are so stifled by their one obvious and only Meaning they fall into the former category.

On The Rising, there are two songs which deal in a similar post 9/11, peri- War on Terror world but have loose fibrils everywhere to grasp. Also, they are much more exciting musically, Worlds Apart with the haunting qawwali chants of Asif Ali Khan and the ethereal spooky/beautiful sheen of Paradise.

Worlds Apart is a driving rock song, rich with meaning spilling outside the borders of the words themselves. This is a song which won't be contained by the talking point of the day. I like that it does not ellide the real difficulties we face -- the cultural, historical, economic, geographic, political gullies and gulfs between us. We do, in many real ways, remain worlds apart. But there is also the promise, as there always is with Bruce. The image of our two worlds as star crossed lovers is a moving one, and brings the abstract political right back home to the personal.

We'll let blood build a bridge over mountains draped in stars
I'll meet you on the ridge between these worlds apart
We've got this moment now to live
then it's all just dust and dark
Let's let love give what it gives
Let's let love give what it gives

Also, is there a more urgent message to hear than

May the living let us in before the dead tear us apart

?? Not to me.

As Worlds Apart is loud, Paradise is whisper quiet but tells a powerful, tragic story but also amazingly hopeful story. It makes me shake a bit, and sometimes want to cry.

There are alot of tantalisingly loose threads to follow here, you can imagine (if you dare) the scene of the young girl being prepared for hideous martydom, the scene of her walking to her final destination in the crowded marketplace. Just a simple few lines, but a whole world in your head. Juxtaposing this story with that of a (presumably) Sept 11 widow/er (although there is no gender, I always picture a woman) is a truly risky move which could easy backfire terribly. It doesn't. The final image is unexpected in its strange and warm hopefullness:

I break above the waves
I feel the sun upon my face

These are dotdotdot songs. There are so many places to go within them. They are politically relevant, yes. Bits and pieces of them run through my head suddenly when listening to the news, reading the paper, making the rounds of blogs, lying awake at 3am wondering what the fuck is going on. But they show you do not have to be banal to be political, or forsake your craft to make a point. The message of these songs are tough, hopeful, complicated and inspiring.

Incidentally, it bemused me at the time that Steve copped so much RWDB flak for John Walker's Blues which is a rather vanilla song (another full stopper), whereas Paradise, from the much more high profile Boss and partially from the POV of a teenage female suicide bomber, slid by with barely a murmur. I put this down to the fact that since rabid right wingers who set their wing'd monkeys on JWB couldn't actually care less about the real issues, they just light upon the first shiny thing that catches their eye. JWB is obvious, Paradise is the second last song on the album, not a single and actually requires you to listen to the words, perhaps even seek them out to read. Far too much work when all you want is 30 seconds of mouth foaming indignation. Or a one line blog post finishing with "heh."

And I haven't even mentioned Bob Dylan! But I've gone on long enough so I'll just say he is the master of the dotdotdot except occasionally -- I'm thinking "Hurricane" -- when he gets stuck in the one way-full stop-cul de sac of boring lameness!

PS a quick Google search suggests many people feel about Worlds Apart the way I feel about Jerusalem. Oh well!

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