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Friday, October 30, 2009
Pop Music Can't do Politics Any More
What difference does it make? In our complex world, even the brilliant lyrics of songwriters such as Morrissey make none
Even before Morrissey collapsed on stage there on Saturday, the Oasis Leisure Centre in Swindon had a claim on musical history. Looking at a flyer for Inspiral Carpets, for whom his brother Noel was a roadie, Liam Gallagher noticed the venue in the background: the Oasis. This odd coming together of the man who wondered whether nature would make a man of him yet and the man who pointed out that “toys, they make noise” raises one of popular music’s oldest questions: do the words count?
All lovers of classical music should look away now, but my heart has always sunk at the knowledge that an album contains an instrumental. Why would you bother to write a backing track and not add some words? Even if they are about being in a hall, faster than a cannonball. It is the presence of the lyric that makes music into song. But does it matter if the words are literate and comprehensible?
The art of the spoken word is alive and well, thanks to Barack Obama — and the best of his speeches are like popular songs. When the President’s speeches take wing, the flight comes from the rhythm of the sentences, not the elevation of the language. The lyrics yield no great mystery on the page but set to the right music, the meaning is heightened. The Black Eyed Peas producer Will.I.Am proved the point when he turned Obama’s New Hampshire primary concession speech into a song.
Suddenly, a popular music form was carrying a highly serious message again. That was something it used to do all the time: Peter Seeger’s adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes in Turn, Turn, Turn; any number of Bob Dylan lyrics; Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Ohio, which tells the tale of the National Guard opening fire on students at Kent State University. Vietnam sparked lyrical protest: Edwin Starr’s War, Phil Ochs’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore. The civil rights struggle inspired state-of-the-nation addresses such as Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and Marvin Gaye’s epic What’s Going On?
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