On Listening to Non-Political Music as a Political Gesture

Sometimes you don’t need a lecture -- or don’t want one.

When people use the word ‘political’ in regard to popular music, it tends to evoke one of two things: a sense of some kind of steady worthiness on the one hand, and loud and angry calls to action on the other. Either way, an overtly political stance is seen as a sign of due seriousness, that the songwriter (and perhaps their fans) are thinking about the world beyond the tip of their nose. Lumping all such music together as ‘protest music,’ in a certain Anglo-American critical sense, allows one the luxury of talking about all political songs as if they were a single monolithic entity.

The drum has been beaten long enough and loud enough about the way that certain things are now not merely clichés but rote acknowledgements. In particular, there’s the sheer calcification of ‘the sixties’ as being somehow the only era ever where everything was theoretically real, earnest and true. In recent years, it’s been wearyingly familiar to see any number of articles — from veterans to maybe too well-meaning younger writers, music journalists or not — wondering where all today’s protest songs are, as contrasted with that theoretical golden age.

Arguing this point isn’t why I’m here — since the ‘60s, there’s been any number of songs in any number of areas, famous to obscure, that are either explicitly politicized or are presented in such a fashion as to have that be a primary interpretation. Suffice to say the cliché of there being no protest songs is a falsehood and easily mocked. But this year — this grinding year, still not even halfway through — overtly political songs, or perhaps more accurately politicized songs, are in many ways the last things I want to hear, or even think about.

There’s been something I’ve noticed more and more over time these past couple of years… a bone-ache weariness, something profound in the soul.

Speaking that way in ways reflects the benefits of privilege. Even as a figure like Donald Trump plays his own frustratingly successful game of promising all things to all figures so long as they think he really means it just for them, I recognize it’s not a figure like me that’s going to readily suffer under a hotter sun should he succeed. And even before Trump’s antics began in earnest, it’s not like I was or am a member of a policed-to-literal-death community, or hated just because of where I want to take a bathroom break, etc. These are removed issues I can only witness, never experience, but they’re everyday life to others. A song — any song — that speaks to anyone in such a situation is something profound.

But there’s been something I’ve noticed more and more over time these past couple of years, and especially this year, through the lens of social media, in particular — a bone-ache weariness, something profound in the soul. The simple anecdotal observations I have aren’t necessarily universal, and their roots range from what the Internet has become to simply getting older. Just these past few days I’ve seen one of the sharpest political writers I know online admit to needing to take a break due to the internecine warfare in which he constantly finds himself. Others explicitly talk of self-care — something I’ve noticed most regularly from a number of black female writers, hinting or speaking openly of mental traumas and blocks caused by the pressures of simply existing and being being forced constantly into positions of explanation and justification to unthinking, reflexive others.

Of course, for some — no matter what their age — to admit to needing any kind of self-care is a surrender or an admission of failure, though there does seem to be a stereotype of older citizens casting a sneering eye on younger ones at work at times. For others, self-care sounds too close to self-medication, that kind of awful horror when the easiest escapes from any amount of pain are among the most destructive. In these deep waters much more could be said, but it could be argued that the perception of community — or overlapping communities — reflected in certain songs and standards that became entrenched from the ‘60s onward provided a communal care of sorts, however driven by nostalgia and an erasing of deeper, unacknowledged wounds. For a younger cohort in the current moment, unable to so easily relax in a safer position, that’s not an option, and the smaller communities, not to mention the selves, engaging in self-care may result from having fewer sources of reliance, immediately and clearly given validation.

I have often steered this year instead toward contemplative ambient works or intriguing obscurities and unfamiliar songs from the past. It is not a politicized choice, but it is admittedly a political one if everything is political, consciously or not.

Looking at the grimness of the world, the insecurity that seems to seep into so many different places, it almost seems that to withdraw into something else — to not consciously acknowledge what is going down — is a failure. Perhaps no album this year, in terms of high profile releases, directly deals with this more than ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, an album with its subject matter clear enough from the title. Its lyrics address everything from personal despair to complicity with military drone strikes and the surrender of privacy to, simply put, the fate of the planet and its inhabitants, and theoretically, nothing could seem more apt in a ‘this is here, this is now, you can’t ignore it’ sense.

But sometimes you don’t need a lecture — or don’t want one. Congratulating oneself for being aware of such matters doesn’t mean you get a medal. As it stands, articulation of thoughts that rank among my darkest, and connecting those thoughts to something that is musically appealing… that’s a recipe for disaster, not comfort or catharsis. It’s of little surprise to me, then, that I have so often steered this year instead toward contemplative ambient works or intriguing obscurities and unfamiliar songs from the past. It is not a politicized choice, but it is admittedly a political one if everything is political, consciously or not. Pursuing this listening is a direct retreat from the abyss all too easily imagined, but it is precisely because of that horrible ease that I so often do so.

This year has already been nostalgic by sad default, with the passing of so many artists old and too-young still. Sinking back into the past, with all its seeming ease, where nothing was ‘wrong’ — if you were lucky enough to start with — is tempting. But then you hear the visions of apocalypse that cropped up in songs by David Bowie and Prince as young men, or the constant suspicion of being played by larger forces that ran like a thread through the work of Merle Haggard, or the irreverent fractured fierceness of a band like LiLiPUT, and it’s not like the threads weren’t there in different ways, questioning and prodding certainties, painting dire pictures we’d rather not consider in full.

Yet whether it is comfort in those zones — reminding ourselves once more why they were so great and meant so much to so many, whether generally or subculturally — or other areas to explore, newly or again, there is a virtue and a health in the withdrawal and escape. Even in the mainstream pop at which Orwell presumably would have clucked his tongue, with his cynicism about proles and their songs at work. Nobody signed up for just lectures when it came to what art touches the heart and soul. A song can be ‘just’ a song. It might only be ‘fluff’ as a listener thinks of it. It’s still fine.

Nothing about this conclusion is new. But we find ourselves in a newer, unsure place now. And yet if we have our guard up 24/7 we will never find our way out of it again; the scars and pressures many face in this structurally-fucked-up society are distressing enough already. If some might call it escapism, I call it maintaining a balance, one which all of us will find in our ways. This year, I think, is one where we all need to be reminded of that, rather than having to deal with the self-serving question of whether music has to somehow ‘mean’ something, once again.