Thursday, January 31, 2008

Political Art

As someone who once upon a time was a devoted Saul Williams fan, I have to say I'm sorely disappointed, (almost to the point of totally writing the guy off), with his latest album, the abominably titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. It's a collaboration with Trent Reznor which, to my way of thinking, totally rejects everything I once found so compelling about Williams. The whole point, I thought, was that he's a poet, and thus has a great way with words. But on...I can't even bring myself to call it by the obvious N-word derived abbreviation...on his new album his vocals are so far down in the mix I can't understand what he's saying most of the time (with the possible exception of his lame "Sunday Bloody Sunday" cover), and when I can understand him I'm not sure that he's saying anything worth hearing. It's a direction he started taking on his previous self titled album, which still had some good songs on it, but on which he was starting to do some more overtly "political" songs, which in part meant abrasive songs in which he railed against the powers that be. And that's all well and good, but it was a definite departure from his trippy, nonabrasive, and rarely overtly political debut album. And while his newest album isn't laden with tracks detailing his arguments against Bush, or anything like that, to me it sounds like a man trying to create a musical howl of political anger, with all the lack of subtlety that implies.

Actually, some people might argue with the statement that his first album wasn't overtly political, and maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but I believe I'm right in saying that. It's extraordinarily hard to make compelling art that is overtly political, and almost nobody really succeeds at it. Musically, you could make a case for success in examples like Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, and the Brecht and Kurt Weill collaborations. But even in those cases the songs that really last and continue to move people aren't about specific political doctrines, they tend to be about finding strength in your own heart. (And that used to be a good description of Saul Williams, before he embarked on his current exploration of dissonance and obscurity.)

There's a lot of art which I like that gets branded as political, but I would argue that in any case in which art is worthwhile, "political" is too simplistic a way to describe it. One prime example would be James Baldwin, an author who (for all his faults as a novelist) I keep coming back to again and again in my reading. Many of his harshest critics discuss him in terms of his political views, and describe him as a failure in that the "protest novels" he was trying to write were ineffective. But I've never agreed with that characterization: early in his literary career he rejected the idea of writing protest novels, and while some would argue otherwise I don't believe he ever went back on that rejection. To me the prevailing theme of his novels tended to be love: struggling to love yourself, to find love with others, to find a way to love your country, or to love life. While the novels could be called political in the sense that the struggles of the main characters tended to be bound up in the injustice of their socioeconomic status, I don't think Baldwin ever meant them to serve a political function, or to be a rallying cry for any political movement. In his own words he wanted to be a "witness" to the hardships he saw around him, and it's this passionate documentation of life (not any political agenda) which makes his novels worthwhile.

A similar example is The Wire, which even its creators tout as a political show, but which I would argue (though I won't belabor this post by getting into detail here) in important ways is not, but rather simply documents the realities of life in a 21st century American city, (stands "witness" to them, perhaps) and for that reason I think it's a show that's likely to endure.

At any rate, I'll finish off by posting Nina Simone's personalized cover of Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny"...a song which certainly has some political overtones, but which is really compelling because it paints a fascinating portrait of an angry woman who's mad as hell, and is not going to take it anymore--not because it makes a particular political point.

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