Talking Political Blues

IRIS DEMENT SINGS from the stage of the Fine Line with a curl to her lips, tearing off choppy guitar chords and rhymed social critique. "We got CEO's makin' 200 times the workers' pay," she snarls, "but they'll fight like hell against raisin' the minimum wage." A man near the front leaps to his feet with a football cheer, pumping his arm toward the ceiling. DeMent continues: "We call ourselves the advanced civilization"--guitar notes rise with a swagger, then tumble--"but that sounds like crap to me"--more audience hoots and applause--"And it feels like I'm"--classic rock melodic resolution--"livin' in the wasteland of the free."

I know these cues, these lures: the hardness of the vocal, the rhetorical surges and soothings of the music, the electricity of the crowd's response. My well-schooled body wants to take the bait so bad my hair is standing up. But I can't swallow it, or I won't. A more rigorous listener in me says, Stay a minute. Hear the clunky words so crammed into their lines. Notice the melody's lazy familiarity. Observe these easy, TV news-ready images: greedy corporate heads, hate-filled conservative preachers, illiterate MTV-watching high schoolers. Don't these situations--these people--deserve more complex portrayals, especially from art? Would the crowd be equally roused if their empathy was called upon as much as their frustration?

A folky singer-songwriter with a big voice as ripe as peaches, as tart as lemons, DeMent has been vilified and praised for venturing into politics on this year's The Way I Should. To me, though, the problem is not that DeMent has written protest songs; it's that she's written such typical ones and presented them so conventionally. On her last album, My Life, DeMent wove visceral, disturbing stories from the tension between her characters' emotional needs and capitalism's relentless cycle of work and consumption. Here, she reduces that strain to a battle between powerful fuckers and their hapless fuckees. Her fruity voice is clenched, its spectrum narrowed to the husky, aggressive tone that means "rebellion" and "self-determination" in current popular music. Most laughably, a "rock" band shows up to pound all points home.

I'm admittedly astonished, at this late date in rock history, to see musicians still convinced that stridency best communicates anger. (Or are they merely convinced that stridency--see Alanis, etc.--best cultivates sales?) Shouldn't artists especially realize how much essential shading, detail, and context goes lost when they hammer on a single note? Haven't enough artists proved that anger served humorously, gracefully, surprisingly, slips deeper down the audience's unclenched gullet and there breeds something more lasting than reflexive mimicry--something like compassion?

I'm speaking, it must be said, as someone who has in the past championed the ferocity of the Clash, Polly Jean Harvey, Public Enemy, Nirvana. In my defense--and theirs--I would argue that each of them complicated anger with other elements: wit, lyrical intricacy, melodic beauty, a sense of personal responsibility. In every case, the creative impulse seemed to be at least as much about healing as hating, about dreaming an alternative to political, psychosexual, or socioeconomic mess. DeMent songs from My Life like "No Time to Cry" and "Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day" dream in this way; down dirty in the hurtful details of just-getting-by, DeMent's voice implicates with its pain yet also greets, knows, and uplifts with its incandescent generosity.

Those are protest songs to me, although they neither rant like Rage Against the Machine's "Children of the Sun," nor scorn like Dylan's "Masters of War." They are protest songs because they demand more of us than we are used to giving, more than we are usually expected to give: more anger, yes, but also more understanding, more love. These songs protest a simplistic notion of humanity. In her essay "Hanging on a Sunrise," white South African writer Nadine Gordimer distinguishes between politically informed art and political witness. The "ethos" of real poetry, she claims, "is restoration: of the spirit beyond and above setting the story straight, which is the business and usefulness of testimony.... When testimony has been filed, out of date, poetry continues to carry the experience from which the narrative has fallen away."

Such a distinction may irritate those of you who chafe at the idea of a "universal" or common standard of artistic excellence. Who decides what is soul-reviving, after all, and by what measure? Still, I keep returning to Gordimer's word "ethos": The fundamental value of art, she says, rests not in its ability to inform, retaliate, expose, or contextualize (although art can do all those things nicely) ,but in its power to restore the spirit. My guess is that you can't truly inspire such a renewal by setting out to disallow the humanity and spirit of other people--however stupid and wrong and greedy they may be. Trying to do so leaves you with half a voice, and it is the voice of your enemy.

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