Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Accidental Folk Song Singer-Songwriters

I am not a huge fan of socially aware music. I realize that this is an awkward sort of thing to dislike, but so far in my life I have never heard any music that has the express purpose of advancing social causes actually be any good.

Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not talking about most of the folk music and protest songs from the 1960's. Most of the classics we hear today at least make an attempt at being subtle, or at the very least tried to be more than just a bumper sticker. Even the scratchy, poorly designed arrangements of Bob Dylan or the melodic inanities of Joni Mitchell were self-aware enough to sell themselves as a movement in and of itself, even if the bill of sale was placid, useless statements about we shouldn't be such dickwads to the Viet Cong. It may have made Woodie Guthrie--and his audience--feel good by claiming that his guitar kills fascists, but sadly only high caliber bullets ended up doing so.

But, yes, I get the point--to borrow a phrase, winning over the hearts and minds of the population is the best weapon to never start a war in the first place. Still, the days of the protest song are long gone, and attempts to replicate this over the past two or three decades have been embarrassingly bad. Whether we are talking about Michael Jackson's frying-pan-to-the-face appeal in Black or White or the sad gospel misfire We Shall Be Free by Garth Brooks--since the one person who could change race relations in this country together is apparently a stern-sounding Craig T. Nelson--it's very, very difficult to pull off a song without coming off as a preachy, pretentious idiot.

Even some bands that have forged their identity around their politics--think Rage Against the Machine or, to a lesser extent, Green Day--the act gets old pretty fast. The fans certainly like it, but if all you are doing is titillating the converted you are more or less just laughing all the way to the bank. And I'm willing to concede that the impressionable young minds, of whom most popular music is aimed anyway, certainly can benefit for some positive reinforcement. But shoehorning in a message like a two-part Full House very rarely brings the muse and it is extremely rare that it produces good music. So-called "classic" songs, mostly from the Vietnam protest era such as Eve of Destruction or Tin Soldiers, often sound more like novelty songs curious for their historical context but rarely because of their social impact or melodic prowess. The sad fact is that a three-minute song is never going to replace a national debate about the war or be a stand-in for a dining room discussion about gay marriage.

If you want to see a somewhat contemporary song that fits the bill, it's not that hard. Regardless of what you think of the Dixie Chicks or their message, Travelin' Solder was a reasonably effective critique of the Iraq War without sounding angry or condescending. (It's also a very beautiful song as well.) While it might not seem like it now--since there are no direct references to that war in the song--it was a lament and a cautionary tale that the consequences of war cannot be ignored, especially in the small towns presumably supportive of the military effort. And it was released before the Dixie Chicks came out vocally for the war, and yet audiences ate it up. (It was still the promoted single from their album when the controversy hit, and so subsequently tumbled from the charts.)

The catalyst for this particular thought, of course, is Accidental Racist, a extraordinarily clueless song by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. It advertises itself as a let's-all-get-together-and-learn-from-our-differences polemic set to an unholy shitty country-rap fusion, but just sort of comes off as an apologia for redneck stubbornness. I actually don't have much of an opinion of the song itself--it handwaves away a century of slavery (no, we don't own slaves now, but there's an entrenched legacy that can't simply be ignored), but pinning all the troubles onto a flag misses the point of social change (racism will still happen, the stars and bars or not). So we are back to square one: nothing will happen with one pop-country song except a whole lot of embarrassment and TV-pundit navalgazery.
The Pledge: While there are a few exceptions, the best mind-changing songs aren't trying to be mind-changing songs; their strength is in their subtly and their craft. Songs that are poorly disguised after-school specials usually end up doing more harm than good.

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