Thursday, March 1, 2012

Papa Don't Preach (Or; Show Don't Tell....Again.)

By Jay Stringer.

Apologies for my absence last week. It seems getting ill is my bodies favourite new thing lately. The post I had in mind was a good 'un about subtext. It will show up over the next few weeks, but it also ties into what I'm writing today.

My friend Steve (of the Slide Into My Hand podcast) forwarded me a link on Monday to this open letter to Bruce Springsteen. He then asked me what I thought of it. Because he's annoying like that. He likes to lock my brain up in complex questions. Springtseen himself has stated he still supports the candidate, but from the sidelines;

"I'm not a professional campaigner and every four years I don't think I'm going to pick a guy and go after him......

....I prefer to stay on the sidelines. I genuinely believe an artist (is) supposed to be the canary in the coal mine and you're better off with a certain distance from the seat of power."

I see two separate issues at play in this story, and I'd like to hear your views on both. But first, hey, you've got to sit through mine.

As to the main issue, It's fair to say I agree completely with Springsteen's current stance. I agree with it so much that I plan on stealing the line about the canary as soon as the dust has settled, and start passing it off as my own.

I've written many times before, both on here and my own site (my solo side-project?) that I like to draw a distinction between being social and being political. But even putting that concept aside for the moment and simply using the term political to cover all, I think there's an important line. In Bruce I've always enjoyed many of the things I come to crime fiction for. It will come as a new concept to precisely nobody reading this to hear Bruce compared to Pelecanos, Steinbeck, or other greats of crime fiction. We do it all the time, it's a cliche at this point.

Nevertheless, it carries truth to it. In albums like NEBRASKA, THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD and DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, what we have is social fiction, and a writing style that fits with any of the names we like to throw around in comparison. We have stories that mine that wonderfully rich seam; the gap between the haves and have-nots. The corruption of power, the trap of ambition, and the poverty of hope.

His politics was never a secret -once he started to form his own politics more as he grew- but it was also something that didn't need to be fully stated. Of course he had opinions, string ones, but they were best served by fuelling his work, and by giving direct answers to questions.

Given how string an influence he was on me at a young age, it's probably no surprise that this became my default setting for what an artist should be. Point to what's wrong and rage at the failures of those in power, but don;t get up on the podium and tell us who to vote for. It would be grossly unfair to single Bruce Springtseen out as the only person who drifted across that line over the past decade-or-so in mainstream music. More and more we saw musical celebrity used as a means to an end on the campaign trail. Sometimes we even saw the musicians pick up their instruments and start attaching their songs to the campaigns.

That's their choice to make, of course, but it was a point when I started to tune out to each of them, and I realised it was because of that crossing of the line that I had drawn. If we ignore my social/political distinction for now and just stick to the one word; I realised I have no issue with songs that had political messages in them (in fact, I often turn to them) but I fall away when they step over into party politics. I think crossing that line is actually demeaning the art. It's making it something less, it's mutating it into propaganda.

I had similar problem's with Steve Earle. Though I'm sure he still sleeps fine at night despite some limey having issues with him, I've never fully recovered the affinity I had with his post-rehab work since THE REVOLUTION STARTS NOW.

To give another example; Paul Westerberg. We know Westerberg's feelings on war. We know his thoughts on feminism, gender equality, mental health and gun control. We know of his caring for those suffering from depression and we know his (complex and not judgemental) views on suicide. And we know all of this because, since 1981, he's given us a body of work that speaks for him on each thorny issue. But, 30 years on from his first release, do we know who he votes for or if he's religious? No, and we don't need to know.

(I actually know the answer to both questions, because I'm a fan and I sought the answers out, but I had to go looking.)

I love music that is socially conscious and politically aware, but I don;t wan to be preached at, and I don;t want either music or the artist to become attached to a particular horse in the rigged race of party politics.

And I carry the same principle over into literature (because really, it's all writing.) When we read of the problems of unemployment, drugs, hopelessness and frustration in these novels, we get a sense of the author and it's not hard, usually, to make an educated guess if we want to. But the work speaks for them. And, more importantly, the work speaks of the real issues, not of the partisan ones. I've felt angry at myself on the occasions when I've crossed the line that I talk about so much, and I strive each time not to do it again.

So that's the first issue that comes out of all of this, for me. I agree with where Bruce was up until the previous administration, and I agree with where he seems to have come back to now. Have opinions, sure. Everybody does. But know that having an opinion doesn't mean you have to campaign, and trust that your work speaks for you. In fact, I could some it all up in that last thought; trust the work.

But I did mention that there was a second issue that I saw coming off all of this, and one that ties back into that open letter. It's not so much a call for artists to come out and tie themselves to campaigns, as it is saying that certain artists opened the can of worms and maybe they have a responsibility to see it through. As much as I would rather Bruce stick to his current position, does he have a responsibility to stay out there on the trail after doing it to such an extent in the previous two elections? Are these musicians cutting and running by not seeing things through and holding the 'new guy' to task as publicly as they did the 'old one'? That's a genuine question I'm asking there, because it's one without an easy answer.

So there you go. Firstly, I think that writers (of all formats) should let their work do the talking for them, and that they shouldn't cross a line into telling people who to vote for. I think they should trust in their art. Do you agree? And if not, which artists who've "crossed that line," do you think have handled it best?

And secondly, once an artist has put themselves out there and tied themselves so publicly to getting "their guy" across the line, do they have a responsibility to stay out there and see things through, just as the candidate does?


Steven J. Wangsness said...

No, and no.

There's no reason artists can't be political. Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell, to name a couple. Artists can be overtly party-political too, if they want. Why not? If Ben Affleck wants to campaign for Democrats or Jeffrey Archer for the Tories, why not?

And there's no obligation to carry anyone across the line. Like anyone else, artists can do as much or as little as they like.

letterneversent said...

I don't think anyone should be stopped from talking about a specific party or political individual if they want to, that would be a basic denial of their human rights. Ok I accept that as a SW if I worked for a local authority I am not allowed to talk about politics/parties around an election, that to me makes sense, but not for an artist if that is what they truly believe in and they want to do.

I do however think that they should challenge someone they supported, keep testing them otherwise leaders/politicians will keep doing what they want and not listening to the people. Obama might actually like Bruce's music and listen to the album, but will the lyrics really make him think about the policies he is putting in place? I seriously doubt it.

I think it also dilutes anything that Bruce endorses in the future, why should I trust him when he hasn't challenged the atrocities of the Obama administration? Yes the Bush admin was that bad that maybe he thought he had to come out and support the alternative, but when Obama has continued so much of what they had done there has to be a questioning of that.

Jay Stringer said...

Interesting points. I agree they have the right to do it, denial of that would indeed be unfair. But as with all moral issues and personal lines in the sand, it's a question of whether they SHOULD, not whether they CAN.

For me, they shouldn't. Have political themes, yes, but don't get on the podium and say who to vote for. In the same way i don't really want them telling me what shampoo to use, etc.

As for the second point; interesting response, and I can see that logic. I'm not sure I disagree with it, either, I don't know, it's a thinker.