Saturday, July 07, 2007

So you thought you might like to go to the show ...

I got a number of reactions to my post on the Roger Waters concert. Some wondered what I expected. My point was not that I did not know Waters is an unreflective lefty or that I did not expect some politics. I'm not sure that I was even surprised that the politics on display was as infantile as it was. Rock stars tend to make their best music when they and their audience are wrapped up in sentiments and wrestling with issues that they will soon grow out of or, more fairly, come to view in very different ways. Some people in the genre manage to explore the same and different themes from a more mature perspective, but, if you haven't done that, reprising the old hits can be something of an exercise in regression. If you haven't (or don't want to admit that you have) grown up since then, you run the risk of seeming a bit silly.

My point was that regression doesn't edify and that Pink Floyd has a lot of great old music than can be enjoyed on some level other than that of a 17 year old boy smoking and drinking in his room and wondering why adults are so dumb anyway. (If you were there, you know what I'm talking about; that was very clever)

(Before we get all indignant, I am not suggesting that opposing the war in Iraq or being critical of George Bush is immature. Thoughtful and mature people obviously can do both.)

More interesting was the idea - hinted at by one commenter - that music is necessarily a rough way of expressing ideas. It evokes emotions and perspectives, not talking points. But that was sort of my point. You can sing about the absurdity of war (it is absurd, if sometimes tragically unavoidable) or of feelings of alienation. The latter may be most salient at 17, but they can occur at least until some age that I haven't reached yet. But when you get too didactic about interpreting these feelings, it is not unlike an overly literal reading of the bible. You stretch the medium beyond what it was made for.

Most interesting was this. I appreciate poking some fun(and don't mind doing it myself), but let's take it at face value for a moment. Since when did the ideas that - no George Bush is not Joe Stalin and religion is not a force for evil - come to constitute right wing ideology? If some country & western singer that I would never go see tried to equate Nancy Pelosi with Osama bin Laden, I don't think you'd need to be a left winger to see that's crazy.

On the other hand, I still have this stuff on my iPod so, you know, have a cigar, Roger. You're still riding the gravy train.


Michael J. Mathias said...

Rick—Art is about pushing discourse to its limits. The form taken by some of our most striking art is exaggerated to the point of caricature. No one would say that Picasso’s “Guernica” is realistic (it received criticism for being cartoonish, and insensitive), and yet it would be hard to find a more staggering and lasting indictment of the inhumanity of war. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that nothing is wrong with political art, per se.

I wasn’t at the show, and have to rely on your recall of the context, but was Waters really saying that Bush is Stalin? Or was he using the image of Stalin to provoke outrage over some of the administration’s very wrong and very immoral policies? I doubt any serious person could suggest that Bush is really a mid-twentieth century communist dictator, but it’s fair game to suggest that policies pursued by the Administration evoke the excesses of dictatorship: the claims to nearly unfettered executive power over the other branches, the gulag-type conditions at Guantanamo Bay, the secret prisons, and, yes, the lingering questions surrounding whether torture was done in our name.

Roger Waters may not be the most subtle practitioner of political art, but these are not subtle times either. Those are real people dying in Iraq. No one should expect it to go on without a certain amount of outrage from the opposition. Dissent is what keeps democracies honest, and I say we need more of it.

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"Since when did the ideas that - no George Bush is not Joe Stalin and religion is not a force for evil - come to constitute right wing ideology? If some country & western singer that I would never go see tried to equate Nancy Pelosi with Osama bin Laden, I don't think you'd need to be a left winger to see that's crazy."

Could we get a little more context to these claims? I mean, comparing Bush to Stalin in "death toll" is obviously crazy, but I can at least think of other comparisons between the two that I would find wrong, but not crazy. And did he really say religion is "evil?" Most of us that have a distaste for religion don't really throw around simplistic words like "evil" too often. Religion is divisive, dangerous, regressive, quarrelsome, turbulent, cruel, barbaric, obsolete, misleading and even stupid (check the dictionary definitions for "faith" and "stupid." They're remarkably similar). But even I wouldn's say that it's "evil." I'd be surprised if Waters did.

Anonymous said...

So, rock stars moonlighting as political commentators bad, but part time law school professors moonlighting as political commentators good?

No, wait I know your response -- Bill Clinton pardonned Mark Rich.

Anonymous said...

Party Music: Rock and the Blues
By Paul Farhi
Thursday, September 2, 2004;

NEW YORK--To judge from the musical soundtracks accompanying this year's political conventions, rock is blue-state music, country is red-state. Gospel is red; hip-hop blue. And disco and soul are, well, kind of purple.

We know this isn't strictly true. People in Idaho and Mississippi, to name two solidly Republican states, probably like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Eyed Peas every bit as much as people in flamingly Democratic states like Massachusetts and Maryland. But those two musical groups were featured performers during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July. Conversely, twangy country boys such as Travis Tritt and Darryl Worley are not unfamiliar to Upper East Side liberals, but they're being showcased as guitar-strumming good ol' Republicans here.

Indeed, both parties have co-opted pop music genres and artists to market their political messages. The basic idea is to use music to reinforce an affinity with certain voters who are presumed to be fans of each style.

Hence, the conventions have spotlighted a great divide -- the political polarization of pop music.

Republicans are featuring genres that celebrate God and country -- "preachers and patriots," in party parlance -- meaning gospel and country. Democrats, meanwhile, embraced more rebellious styles, especially rock, hip-hop and protest folk.

Check the headliners at this week's Republican convention. Top-billed are Christian singer Gracie Rosenburger, Christian rock band Third Day, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin and Christian pop artist Michael W. Smith. Operatic tenor Daniel Rodriguez, a retired New York City police officer, sang "Amazing Grace."

Then there's the cowboy-booted parade of country performers: Tritt, Worley, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Mark Chesnutt, the Gatlin Brothers.

You might also hear some Broadway tunes, in a nod to the convention's locale, but there's no hip-hop in the house, no heavy metal, techno, folk, reggae or (heaven forbid!) punk.

Republicans also don't seem to want, or haven't been able to find, a major contemporary rock band. The best they've been able to do is line up a series of "classic" rock bands, all of them with roots in the solidly Republican South. Even at that, these dinosaur rockers -- ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Dickey Betts Band, .38 Special and the Charlie Daniels Band -- are playing at convention-related parties around town, not on the convention's hydraulically controlled main entertainment stage.

The GOP's musical program was overseen by Frank Breeden, the convention's director of entertainment and a former president of the Gospel Music Association. In booking the acts, Breeden clearly had an eye toward underscoring the convention's setting and its multiple references to Sept. 11, 2001. Rodriguez, for example, gained prominence for his rendition of "God Bless America" after 9/11, and Worley had a hit with the Sept. 11-inspired "Have You Forgotten?"

The Democrats played their own thematic games in July. For those disaffected with President Bush, Patti LaBelle sang "Change Is Gonna Come." Singer-songwriter Carole King crooned "You've Got a Friend" on John Kerry's behalf. U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama came onstage to a recording of the Impressions' "Keep On Pushing," and Howard Dean exited to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." Kerry's acceptance speech was bookended by Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" and U2's "Beautiful Day," both tunes Kerry uses frequently on the campaign trail.

Popular music has promoted American politicians since George Washington's time, of course, but the current state of affairs bothers Jehmu Greene, president of the nonpartisan Rock the Vote voter registration organization. The political parties have created "a culture clash," she says, that oddly pits rock and hip-hop fans against country fans. "The parties have embraced the music they want to reflect their [voting] bases. Neither one did very much to reach out to another side when they planned their conventions. Music should be a part of healing, but it's being used to polarize."

To be fair to the Democratic and Republican parties, however, the musicians themselves also bear responsibility for this state of affairs. In Boston, Rock the Vote and the Creative Coalition were able to persuade several big-name artists -- such as alternative rockers Maroon 5 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- to play at their events. In New York, the reception has been underwhelming; the two organizations were able to secure commitments only from such lesser-known singers as Dana Glover and Angie Stone.

At the same time, the fall campaign season will feature a wave of music-related political activity, almost all of it anti-Bush. In coming weeks, a dozen artists, including Springsteen, R.E.M., Dave Matthews and the Dixie Chicks (along with Willie Nelson, an exception to the country-is-Republican school) will tour battleground states in the Vote for Change concert tour organized by, a liberal group. So far, no one has proposed a pro-Bush tour.

Then there are the albums: "Rock Against Bush, Vols. 1 and 2," put out by the anti-Bush, features Green Day and Sum 41; "Future Soundtrack for America" has recordings by Tom Waits, David Byrne and 20 others; "Wake Up, Everybody" is a new single and album with rappers Missy Elliott, Jadakiss and Eve.
If there's one kind of nonpartisan pop music left, it may be classic R&B and disco. At both conventions, delegates boogied with equal abandon to recordings or live house-band versions of James Brown's "I Feel Good" and other hits from the '60s and '70s by Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

Asked about the politics of his music, Brad Detrick, one of the leaders of the 13-piece band playing at the Republican convention, simply shrugged. "We're a dance band," he said of his group, the Manhattan Rhythm Machine. "We do weddings and corporate events. We play what's popular. We play what people like to hear."

Music that's just entertaining? Music with no political overtones? Now that's a crazy, radical idea.

Rick Esenberg said...

Jesusisjust ...

No, nothing that he did used that term, although I think it's a fair enough paraphrase. But this strike me as interesting:

Religion is divisive, dangerous, regressive, quarrelsome, turbulent, cruel, barbaric, obsolete, misleading and even stupid ... But even I wouldn's say that it's "evil."

Why not?

Rick Esenberg said...


I don't know that I agree with that definition of art. It seems to me to be the root of an awful lot of bad art.

I do not think there is anything wrong with art that has political implications. It seems to me, however, that it is very hard to make good art that makes a very specific political point. Great art evokes life's complexity. Politcs tends to reduce it. I'm not saying that it can never be done, only that it rarely is.

Was Waters making some detailed comparison between Bush and Stalin and concluding that they are comparable? Obviously not. The guy had to fit his points on the side of a flying pig.

But what he was doing is suggesting a moral equivalence and that sours the music. There are a handful of real life monsters - Stalin, Hitler, Mao - that you don't lightly compare people to without diminishing the magnitude of their evil or wildly exaggerating whatever criticism that you are making in a way that destroys its credibility.

There is a lot more than body count that distinguishes any reasonable criticism of Bush from Stalin. I think that saying that the executive branch has exercised "nearly unfettered" power over other branches or that Gitmo is a gulag is just factually inaccurate (and I have problems with certain aspects of Gitmo), but let's put that aside.

Even if you accept the dubious proposition that the Bush administration has done some thngs that are somehow dictatorial, it's not in the same universe as Stalinist Russia or Hitler's Germany. To even suggest so is not to push discourse to its limit. It's to look ridiculous.

It is so breathtakingly stupid that you can't suspend judgment and it creates a dissonance that takes away from the art. How can I listen to this, you think, when my senses have just been assaulted with something so stone ignorant?

Rick Esenberg said...

Anon 10:01

No, wait I know your response -- Bill Clinton pardonned Mark Rich.

Well, it's always nice to be reduced to a stereotype by someone who probably thinks that he or she is openminded. I haven't said anything here about Libby or Marc Rich. Both the commutation and the pardon raise some questions, but they are different ones.

It's OK for rock stars and lawprofs to comment on politics. I'm not sure that either actually counts as moonlighting.

But I certainly don't expect to get a free pass on my political commentary and its relationship to my teaching. If, for example, I tried to use a class as a way to indoctrinate students, I'd expect to get called on it. If I allowed my political views to get in the way of teaching, I'd expect to be criticized.

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"Why not?"

I guess because "evil" invokes intent. At least it does to me. All the words I used describe the effects of religion, rather than the intent. In other words, I don't think religion, or religious people mean to cause all the problems that they do. It's not bad, it's just confused (and confusing). So to me, using the term evil is not a good paraphrase if he just said something more observable like "religion is causing problem X." I don't know that he did say somthing like that, so that's why I asked.