By Joseph Moore
The age old march towards social and political relevance is alive and well in Hollywood. Anyone who is aware of this march will have seen, or at least heard of, the Malik Benjelloul documentary feature Searching for Sugar Man. The award-winning documentary tells the rags to… well, rags story of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, whose compositions are regarded as being on par with Bob Dylan’s. Rodriguez was known to perform with his back turned (not unlike Dylan’s performances nowadays, but as a complete unknown) when he first started out, appearing in “faggot bars, hooker bars, [and] motorcycle funerals” (lyrics from A Most Disgusting Song, 1972). Faced with the general prejudice of the early 1970s towards Latino-Americans, Rodriguez simply refused to play into the formulaic marketing strategies that for decades had been the only way to get noticed. It wasn’t until the living standards of the ’80s and ’90s had improved, with the selfish, product driven “artist” being the norm, that the humble Rodriguez was given any audience or attention in his home country. This, perhaps, was due to his reclusive and genuine persona; he offered a glimpse of the good old days of music, when performers were convincingly real in their pursuit for artistic merit. By the late ’90s, he was – for the first time – marketable, because he was different from the rest. His difference was all that needed highlighting to make money for the businessmen around him, who were and still are controlling the distribution of his songs, his ideas and his personality.
“Soon you know I’ll leave you/And I’ll never look behind/’Cos I was born for the purpose/That crucifies your mind./So con, convince your mirror/As you’ve always done before/Giving substance to shadows/Giving substance ever more.” (Crucify Your Mind, 1970)
“Woke up in the morning with an ache in my head / splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed / opened up the window to listen to the news / but all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.” (The Establishment Blues, 1970)
He even challenged the excess repression of the day through the basest of human curiosities:
“I wonder how many times you’ve had sex / I wonder do you know who’ll be next?” (I Wonder, 1970)
This begs the question of what can be classified, in the United States particularly, as music that is both accepted and impactful? Dylan spoke out against the political establishment and wealthy elite early in his career, yet when the pressure became too great, he backed away and deliberately alienated his followers before returning to writing love songs that softened impact and floated above controversy. That was his right as an artist, but when one is driven to create art in one way or another by important social upheavals such as, for example, the Vietnam war, what say then when principles and positions are abandoned without so much of an excuse as the Dylanesque, ‘I’m tired of speaking out’? Isn’t art meant to invigorate and provoke us? Isn’t it meant to tell us something about ourselves as well as the world we live in?
Of course, subjectivity is a big part of it. It’s Dylan’s right to play the music he wants to, but it’s hard not to question the decision Dylan made when he sheathed his anti-establishment sword. After all, he brandished it so effectively in helping to push the oppressed and the outraged to challenge the status quo in its opposition and neglect of civil rights and free speech. Thus, Dylan’s changing attitude mirrored the massive disenfranchisement that infiltrated and ultimately crushed the liberating social movements of the late ’60s. It was his newfound apathy that symbolically became the detriment of the freedom-minded for whom he was the voice.
When listeners are bombarded with the same handful of meaningless tunes over and over and over and over, you have to ask where the artistic merit has gone. What is the message? What is actually being communicated? Better yet, because we are all by nature impressionable, what does it encourage in us to value and celebrate? Being impressionable is a part of all of us that doesn’t simply stop in our twenties; look at the differing narratives of world news that we all seem to lend legitimacy to just by listening and using them as crafters of the context for everything outside of the day-to-day bubble that we experience directly. We all refer to different combinations of news media outlets, and each tells a completely different story about the world, yet at some point, we all decide that what we’ve chosen to expose ourselves to must be the only rational forum of information.
So, in musical expression, we see the potential for great social change, but also the potential for harm. Taylor Swift is not a lone example, and there are many artists in her position who are far more complicit, and either manipulative or manipulated. They, as individuals, fail to understand the way in which they themselves are simply another form of provider of the “opiate of the masses”, as Karl Marx famously said of religion. Where religion has also sought to take the importance of faith and homogenize it into a preached belief system for large groups of people in order to control them, music too has been co-opted as an art form by way of clever marketing strategies as tools for distracting and trivializing public discourse. It leaves many wondering why artists like Rodriguez might be ignored — and many like him are probably in the same boat today – decades or lifetimes away from ever being noticed or heard, if at all. Meanwhile, the trashier the message, the more superficial the structure of the song, the more successful it is.
Why bother switching on the radio anymore? Wander the streets by day and seek out the real people among the masses. Seek out stories of meaning, which challenge you and make you rethink life and your place in it. Look for the music that is ever-changing, and yet relentless in its passion and fortitude in the face of an apathetic world.
Joseph Moore is Music Editor for the magazine.