23 May 2005

If I were wealthy…

By Rupert Read

Music, we are often told, was better in the 1960s. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, The Kinks - with artists like this I find it hard to disagree. Importantly, all of these artists sang about - and were part of - the wider social rebellion of the period. Who can forget songs like A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, The Times They Are A-Changin and Big Yellow Taxi? Or how about John Lennon's deeply-moving Imagine?

But what about today? It is striking that Bob Dylan - the man who more or less wrote the soundtrack to the 60s - long ago stopped referring to politics in his music. Most mainstream musicians today are the same as him.

A recent hit that seems to sum up what is wrong with current pop music had the catchy refrain If I were a rich girl… I'd have all the money in the world, If I were a wealthy girl." No politics - just money-grabbing. True, this is a reworking of the famous old song by Topol, from Fiddler on the roof, "If I were a rich man". But the song seems to have got much more unpleasant in the retelling. Topol only wanted enough money so that he "wouldn't have to work hard". This 'material girl' by contrast wants "all the money in the world".

What would it be like, to have all the money in the world? It would mean that no-one could sell anything, except to you. Everyone in the world would be a slave to whatever wage you were willing to pay them.

This song begs the question, What is wealth? Are you wealthy if you have enough money to cajole other people to do your bidding? Or is true wealth something different? Are rich rock-stars necessarily wealthy? Or is someone who has meaning in their life, someone who is loved not because of the size of their wallet but because of the size of their heart, someone who is trying thoughtfully to do the right thing in the world, perhaps wealthier, at the end of the day?

Since the US/UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a new wave of political protest music has emerged, driven by musical artists who, thankfully, don't seem to care if their principled stance denies them access to great financial wealth. They are perhaps more interested in this other kind of wealth. Take for instance country music rebel Steve Earle, who has written the uncompromising and soulful John Walker Blues, an attempt to understand the California-born Taliban fighter. For his pains, Earle was branded a traitor by sections of the US media.

After being an eyewitness to the events in New York on September 11th, the singer / songwriter Ani Di Franco wrote the pro-peace prose-poem Self Evident in response: "You can keep the Pentagon/ keep the propaganda/ keep each and every TV/ that's been trying to convince me/ to participate in some prep school punk's plan to perpetuate retribution." The US punk trio Sleater-Kinney also take a critical stance in their song Combat rock, singing "Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?/ Since when is scepticism un-American?"

In Britain, Asian Dub Foundation released Enemy of the enemy in 2003, an album written in the shadow of September 11th. The song Blowback is described by the group in the album notes: "Blowback is the CIA term for the unintended consequences of secret operations. Or when the monsters you have created like Saddam no longer serve your interests and start to bite you. And September 11th was the biggest blowback of all."

And then there are musicians locally here in Norwich and Norfolk who are doing their bit. I would like to single out the wonderful local 'klezmer' band, KLUNK. Drawing on the traditions of Jewish folk music, KLUNK play songs of love and protest, of dance and joy and sadness - and they play these songs most frequently where they can support good causes by doing so. For instance, the major 'Start the Peace' Conference at UEA, as reported on by this newspaper, was graced by a long KLUNK performance that left delegates startled, and full of joy and hope.

Popular musicians are in a very privileged position. They have the ability and opportunity to comment very publicly on what is happening in the world. Steve Earle commented after the bombing of Afghanistan, "This is no time to sing about girls".

How does your favourite popular musician stand up to this judgement? Do the musicians you like to listen to play their part in 'speaking truth to power'? Or do they merely glorify hedonism - and money-grabbing?

Many thanks to Ian Sinclair for help with this column.