17 March 2010

When Music Makes a Stance

I would like to dedicate this posting to a friend and colleague of mine (you know who you are!). Our daily conversations not only keep me focused professionally, but also personally. I am not sure that this post would be what it is without your “stance” and insights, and for that I’m grateful. Thank you for the show of the support and listening to my lunatic ranting and howling. (But feel free to tell me to shut the hell up!)

I remember the first time I heard “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears; though I really did not pick up on or understood the Big Brother references (“Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back. Even while we sleep, we will find you acting on your best behavior….”), the song made me a fan of theirs at an early age. A few later years they would release “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” Roland Orzabal sings the opening line: “High time we made a stand and shook up the views of the common man…” Later he sings, “I spy tears in their eyes, they look to the skies for some kind of divine intervention. Food goes to waste, so nice to eat, so nice to taste. Politician grannie with your high ideals, have you no idea how the majority feels?” And for the first time music politicized me in a way that it had never done so before. Of course I was aware of punk rock before this, but in many ways punk rock had just become a “fad” in the 80s, an adulterated scene of mediocre repetitiveness instead of achieving the political bombast that it could have. But it was “Sowing the Seeds of Love” that really made me think about Politics, with a capital “P.” Why don’t people have food to eat? Why do we look for divine intervention and not political action? Why are those in power so out of touch with what the common man needs? And the proverbial ball started to roll…

The history of modern music, for the most part, is about escapism. Even the vast majority of the musicians that I have come to respect are escapists for the most part. And what else could be expected: whether in a market sponsored by corporate commercialism or a license paying population, to take a stance on any political or social issue runs the risk of alienating listeners, especially in a country like the USA which is so politically polarized – right or left, black or white. No matter what the issue (child abuse, immigration, gay rights, global warming, health care reform, public education, racial equality, war, women’s rights, world famine, etc…), there will always be two or three or four sides to the debate; there will never be complete consensus. But that is not enough for some artists. Though risking their appeal to a broader audience, there are those that will take a stance and reject escapism (occasionally or all the time), whether they do it blatantly or subtly. Either as an attempt to stir social consciousness or start a movement, musicians have historically risen to the moment and followed their conscience.

I know the risk even I take writing about political or social stances, but what I do not want to do is degrade this posting into a political conversation. Though I love politics, especially from a theoretical point of view, as I get older I find myself becoming more and more pragmatic. And I am learning to stop looking at issues as right versus left, because “conservative versus liberal” is very relative. Conservative politicians in Nederland are progressive compared to those in the USA. And rarely do I meet people who are one or the other; most people have a spectrum of views that cut through many different ideological institutions, because we are all the sums of our experiences – and no two people ever have identical experiences. Ultimately, I believe to each their own; I personally feel that there should be a free inter exchange of political, social, and philosophical thoughts for everyone to engage, critique, assimilate, and grow from. No one “institution” has all the answers.

And I want to dismiss the idea that political songs in the music industry come from bleeding heart liberals; actually both sides of the fence have written their share of songs – and often throughout history have shared many social movements together. Regardless of what issue is being written about, if you are like me, music comes down to, well, the music. Just because you are singing about an issue that I may care about does not mean that I am going to like the song. With that in mind, I thought I would share some great songs that take a stance on some issue. But these are not just the ranting of individuals; they are highly crafted songs. These songs demonstrate the power of when social consciousness and artistry meet. And regardless if it is music or film, paintings or novels, it is when those two things meet (social consciousness and artistry) that we really see the value of art of any kind. Though I know there are many substantive issues musicians can take on (Depeche Mode is obsessed with the idea of power and dominance in relationships, while Placebo loves to address the issue of loss and personal failure), the issues I am going to center on are political and social issues.

A little disclaimer: I decided to write and include songs that had official embeds available. I avoided the temptation of using songs that have been posted on the blog before, such as Muse’s “Uprising” (about the mistrust people/protesters have of politicians and bankers). Then there were a slew of songs that I could not include, because they were not available for embedding or just flatly not available at all. But here are some artists (from a really long list) I wish I could have included, but was not able: Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, NWA, Public Enemy, Queensryche, Rage Against the Machine, and Tears for Fears.

“God Save the Queen,” sang Johnny Rotten, “the fascist regime; they made you a moron, a potential H-bomb.” If that was not blatantly honest enough, he later sings, “God Save the Queen, cause tourists are money and our figurehead is not what she seems.” Though the song would chart extremely well (#2 in the UK in 1977), it was banned in certain quarters – so much for free speech. That would just make The Sex Pistols more of a force to be reckoned with. And that was the thing with the original wave of punk rock; not only did they reject the common notions of music, they rejected much of the common political ideas. Attacking the tradition of royalty, which politically serves no function, The Sex Pistols were aiming for a politics that incorporated the common man and not just exulted the traditions of an older generation. And when you consider from 1977 to now, it is no surprise that the closing words of this song became the mantra of punk rock kids everywhere: “No Future.” (“God Save the Queen” from The Sex Pistols’ MySpace Videos Page.)

Sex Pistols: God Save The Queen

Sex Pistols | MySpace Music Videos

The great David Bowie has made his share of stances on issues. The subtlest, and yet most powerful, would be “Heroes” in 1977. He sings, “I can remember standing, by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall, and the shame was on the other side. Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever, then we could be heroes for just one day.” And though many people have come to know this song through the 1998 cover by The Wallflowers, it is in its original context that the song is really powerful. This song is about the Berlin Wall, and the story of two lovers, one from each side. In his nice subtle way, Bowie shows how that wall, imposed upon Europe, created a division that not only wrecked the lives of individuals, but all future possibilities. And in the eyes of many, you were a hero, not a traitor, to beat that wall. A decade later, the wall would come down. Not just because of Americans, but also because of Europeans, on both side, that kept questioning the need and reality of that wall. (“Heroes” from David Bowie’s MySpace Videos Page.)


David Bowie | MySpace Music Videos

Pointing out the apocalyptic potential of the future, The Clash’s “London Calling” (1979) is one of the most bone chilling songs recorded in the original wave of punk rock. From the fear of nuclear catastrophe to drowning in overflowing rivers, The Clash points out all the possible ways the end could be met: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s of an end, engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin…” Though there are natural causes in there, the majority is manmade: “the war is declared,” “Phony Beatlemania,” and a “nuclear error” to name a few. What made The Clash relevant and urgent in the mainstream, unlike many other punk bands, was that their music was much more digestible by the mass media. And from “London Calling” to “Rock the Casbar,” this was a band that was able to make you think while enjoying music. (“London Calling” from theclashVEVO YouTube Channel.)

Though the great Bob Marley would not be with us when “Buffalo Soldier” would be released in 1983, this song would be a rally for black resistance and civil rights. Though many critique the inaccuracies in timeline of the song (though I am sure these same people would never do the same to writers like Shakespeare), the song depicts more of an outline of events: taken from Africa by force, forced into slavery, made to fight in separate regiments (ironic, really, fit to fight for the country, but not to be quartered with whites), and now fight for survival in an unjust, racially charged nation. Pointing out a reality that mainstream America rarely wants to hear, Marley sings, “fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.” From the first moment, struggling for freedom and to survive slavery, to fighting for civil rights, to fighting for respect (just think about it, even the American president is often confronted with bigoted language and ideas), Marley’s song, named after those original regiments in the Civil War (not to mention, the minority regiments are have traditionally been the first infantry sent in), is a reminder to continue to fight and survive. (“Buffalo Soldier” from the BobMarleyWailersVEVO YouTube Channel.)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood is most known for their song “Relax,” a blatant ode to masturbation. Already, Frankie Goes to Hollywood demonstrated they had the courage to take on subject matters that could stir controversy. “Two Tribes” takes its title from “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and is a direct critique of the Cold War: the USA versus the USSR. The song is about the nuclear threat that the entire world was living under. “We got two tribes, we got the bomb… Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new Gods?” With one of the best dance beats of 1984, I wonder how many people may have been dancing to this track without realizing what the song was really about. By the way, the introductory samples, from news clips, pop culture, and presidential speeches, are really chilling. (“Two Tribes” from the zttrecords YouTube Channel.)

And what do you do if you are a musician whose image and music is being used to promote a political campaign that you do not endorse? If you are Bruce Springsteen, you respond to President Ronald Reagan in kind. “Born in the USA” is about the working class, inspired by friends of Springsteen’s who went to Vietnam, some who did not return and others that returned to face more hardships. What the song is not is patriotic rant for the status quo; actually, quite the opposite, it is a criticism of how many are lost and forgotten in America – “I’m ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” The song is not about that nebulous middle class that Reagan wanted to politically court; it is about the working class, the forgotten, and the disempowered. And even in our current global political climate, we continue to talk about the middle class and have completely forgotten the working class. And if there is a song that will go down in history as the greatest socio-political statement of its time, it is this song. (“Born in the USA” from the Bruce Springsteen MySpace Video Page.)

Born in the USA

Bruce Springsteen | MySpace Music Videos

In 1987, Suzanne Vega would become a household name with her single, “Luka.” While the few artists that were making a stance were doing so for national and global issues, Vega took a different kind of stance: one against child abuse and domestic violence. She sings from the point of view of little Luka: “If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight, just don’t ask me what it was.” Later she sings, “And they only hit until you cry, after that you don’t ask why, you just don’t argue anymore.” In many ways Vega takes on a harder issue than the Cold War and nuclear annihilation, because ultimately we believe in the premise of privacy and what goes on in the house stays in the house. And though a decade later there would be more social services to address these issues, in the 80s it was a difficult fight to have. But that did not deter Suzanne Vega. (“Luka” from the SuzanneVegaVEVO YouTube Channel.)

Erasure, from the start, is one of the few major label artists that has had a statement to make: from drag in their first video or ruby-red slipper “Wizard of Oz” inspired space odyssey second video, Andy Bell and Vince Clarke (who is straight) have had no fear of making waves. It would be easy to write about “Chains of Love” or “A Little Respect,” but these are not their greatest political/social stance. When they released the titular track of their sophomore album, “The Circus” (1987), who would have thought that such a song would go straight to the top ten in the UK during the Thatcher years, and of course no surprise that even though the prior three singles had mixes that did extremely well on the US dance charts, this track didn’t. A song aptly titled for this accordion ditty, Erasure had the courage to make a stance for the workingman. As politicians over the past three decades keep talking about the middle class, forgetting that the working class built and maintains every single modern nation, Erasure takes a political and social swipe at the current political “blindness” towards the work class. Bell sings, “Father worked in industry, now the work has moved on and the factories gone. See them sell your history, where once you were strong and you used to belong. There was once a future for a working man, there was once a lifetime for a skillful hand yesterday.” As the final words you hear are “a broken dream,” you are left to wonder what is left for the working class in this current environment. (“The Circus” from Erasure’s MySpace Video Page.)

The Circus (Video)

Erasure | MySpace Music Videos

Most known for ripping the picture of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live,” less known for her impetus for doing so, Sinead O’Connor was trying to draw attention to the sexual abuses of children within the Roman Catholic Church, a real life issue that did not make any real news for close to a decade afterwards. Regardless, O’Connor continued to be a champion for the fight against the sexual abuse of children (not to mention Irish nationalism, women’s rights, and questioning traditional theology). In 1994, O’Connor would make a bold move by recording and releasing “Fire on Babylon.” The song is an insight to the effect of the child abuse she had to endure, and again an attempt to bring attention the issue: “She took my father from my life, took my sister and brothers; I watched her torturing my child, feeble I was then but now I’m grown.” And though I admit that her original way of getting attention for the issue was a bit unorthodox, what is most admirable about O’Connor is that the controversy never stole her thunder, never made her stop, never made her apologize. She continued, and still continues, to live by her convictions and instill them into her music. (“Fire on Babylon” from the mypartofthething YouTube Channel.)

I recently got one of those online surveys, and one of the questions was if you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be? Among my list were the members of The Manic Street Preachers. One of the bands I respect the most, from their personal narratives of tragedy and hope to their unrelenting craftsmanship and courage to make a stance, Manic Street Preachers is one of the few veteran bands that never give into frivolous, meaningless babble. There is never filler, only substance, and 1998’s “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” is a brilliant example of what the band has to offer. Inspired and set in the Spanish Revolution, the song is a reminder, a lesson we should have all learnt from history: do not sit idly as the world is collapsing around you. Remember when the Nazi’s went for the Jews? Remember when any said dictator went for the free press? Remember when any political group silence another group that disagreed with them? Who is next? Hands down, “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” is my favorite political song, because its central message, not to stand by as the world is changing into something that is an abhorrer, is a message that anyone, anywhere, can take to heart. (“If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” from the ManicStPreachersVEVO YouTube Channel.)


  1. How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

    "If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

    Dr. Carter G. Woodson 1875 – 1950

    “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

    Marcus Garvey 1887-1940

    "A tree without roots can bare no fruit, it will die."

    Erich Martin Hicks 1952 - Present

    Keep telling that history, our history:

    Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, "RaPR", a great story of black military history...the first
generation of Buffalo Soldiers.

    The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry.

    Read the novel, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, 5 stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial...and visit the website http://www.rescueatpineridge.com

    I hope you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote it from my mini-series movie of the same title, “RaPR” to keep my story alive. Hollywood has had a lot of strikes and doesn't like telling our stories...its been “his story” of history all along…until now. The movie so far has attached, Bill Duke directing, Hill Harper, Glynn Turman, James Whitmore Jr. and a host of other major actors in which we are in talks with see imdb.com at; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0925633/

    When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; http://www.alphawolfprods.com and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for Wells Fargo in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.