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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Changing the World: Jean Smith on Billy Bragg

Jean Smith from Mecca Normal is one of my favorite writers who utilize the blog format.

Check out her recent review of Billy Bragg. Here's an excerpt:

At the record store, fifty-one year-old Billy looked and sounded great -- he did about a half dozen songs and turned the chorus of his most famous single "A New England" into a sing-along. "I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England. I'm just looking for another girl." From my vantage point, beyond Bragg, several young women sang with delight, but I wondered if the protagonist's perspective -- the guy in the song -- was perhaps lost on them, when, in this era, the idea of being able to change the world has been relegated to unrealistic, while the concept of participating in a re-structuring of society has been set aside for immediate comforts. "I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England. I'm living with my folks, looking for a cell phone plan."

If it's possible to detect the difference between lower case and capital letters in aural communication, I got the impression people were singing "I'm not looking for New England" -- the region north of New York state or the white clam chowder as opposed to the Manhattan red. A place on a map and a bowl of soup are easy, tactile associations -- a new England is a more complex prospect to grapple with. Please pass the Rand McNally's and the Tabasco.

Or maybe it's that thing that happens when the sound of a song becomes synonymous with its purpose. Lyrics turn into agreeable noises to be chanted without connecting them to the words -- their actual, undeniable and important meaning. Seems to me that the song's purpose was to foist an average youth, circa 1983, into our awareness, to expose a vignette of apathy within the human condition -- not to celebrate the guy's decision to opt out in favor of finding a new girlfriend.

I like that she thinks about how a song is being received by the audience--how its meaning changes over time--and that she brings her own thinking about politics and art to her discussion of Billy Bragg's music.

In conclusion she writes:

We need new political songs to add to the ones that may become diluted by becoming popular. The friendlification factor has a way of putting intention and meaning on the back burner.

While I get what she means--the more popular a song becomes, the more a status quo interpretation of its meaning takes over to obliterate its intent--I wonder if there is a contradiction at work. If we do want to change the world, don't we want radical ideas to become popular? How should our music, art and cultural work address this complexity?

1 comment:

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