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Politics in song lyrics

How does everyone feel about political song lyrics?

In a previous thread about what makes you like music, a few people said things along the line of 'I don't like politics in music, because I probably don't agree with their politics'.

But, does whether you agree with somebody's politics really affect the quality of the art? For me when somebody expresses their political beliefs in art, I don't judge it based on whether I agree with it, I judge it based on the eloquence with which it's expressed.

Take John Lennon. Everyone knows his lyrics are socialist and hostile to the status quo, but nobody cares, because he expresses them in such a beautiful way. If he was hard line conservative but still such a beautiful lyricist, I'd still think he was just as great a songwriter.

Then there are people like Connor Oberst who can say things I basically agree with, but still piss me off because of how they come off as presumptuous and superior.

A song I really like is The Byrds - The Christian Life, even though I'm a very unreligious man.

For me it's not whether I agree with what the singer is saying, but whether they say it in a compelling way.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Gram Parsons certainly didn't live the Christian life either! I, too, appreciate gospel or religious music as a genre exercise. For example, "Two Hands" or "When He Offers his Hands" by Townes Van Zandt or Johnny Cash's "God" music.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

I typically enjoy political music more when I agree with the message. I'm a real lefty so I see nothing but beauty in Lennon's solo work, particularly Imagine and God. Of course, this is not to say that politics is a substitute for art. Some Time in New York is a horrible peice of work.

Almost all of Dylan's political stuff is great, and nothing beats Blowin' In The Wind.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Let me get myself into trouble...Lennon was no socialist. He was way, way too self-absorbed to put forth any kind of coherent political message. He spouted a kind of general left-wing antinomianism, but I've heard 14-year-olds with a more nuanced understanding of how the world works.

I think "Imagine" is a mediocre song with truly awful lyrics--smug, snide and hypocritical. I recognize that many people, including BillAdama, SR and Henrik, find it transcendent; I don't mean to offend, but I'm just not hearing the same thing you are.

For the record, politically, I'm a progressive liberal; like you, SR, I love Bob Dylan in his protest period. I also think John Lennon is one of the greatest songwriters in history--rock or otherwise--but I think he peaked in 1967. I've never understood the acclaim heaped on his solo career, except as a matter of the fact that he was John Frickin' Lennon.

Like everything else in song lyrics, politics should be employed for poetic effect (which "Imagine" does not). Dylan understood this, and so did Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Neil Young, Joe Strummer, Michael Stipe, Peter Garrett, Bruce Springsteen. And even Lennon, on "Revolution," where he was canny enough to diagnose the problem, not prescribe a solution. He later forgot that lesson, apparently.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

I find it tough to find anyone who totally nails my political viewpoint.

Cause I'm very socially progressive, but I'm against acting morally superior based on your political views, and I'm fairly centrist when it comes to fiscal policy. (In that I think there are specific times the government should intervene and specific times it shouldn't).

I agree John Lennon doesn't have the most realistic understanding of politics, but I find beauty in the way he dreams utopian. "This is how I think the world should be, why do we have to accept the cynicism that it can't be?"

When it comes to views I disagree with, there is a big difference in quality of expression. Loretta Lynn expresses conservative views beautifully while Toby Keith expresses them crassly and arrogantly.

And Miranda Lambert manages to glorify small town lifestyles elegantly, without even a hint of Sarah Palin condescension.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Ugh! Loretta Lynn's "God Makes no Mistakes" is just as bad as any Toby Kieth song. The difference is that it had Jack Whites name attached to it.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

bill, i think i generally agree with you

i'll see how well i can articulate this...

first of all, no i don't have to agree with it at all - which is why i can love movies like birth of a nation and triumph of the will (also, the toby keith song doesn't bother me, partly, i think, because i respect him as a songwriter and partly because "that song" is true, isn't it? has not the "american way" always been to stick a boot in the ass of any country that dares to fuck with the u.s.? obviously, i'm not proud of this...)

as for how i like my politics in music, i prefer them to be either couched in a narrative (springsteen, newman, ice cube, whatever) or fairly sophomoric - the clash, rage against the machine, fela kuti, public enemy, etc. in other words, nothing too sophisticated, nothing too clever - i still want music, not a political tract (a la crass - horrible horrible band). more of a vague political resistance or expression of anger - "fight the power" or "fuck the police" or "cunts are still running the world" - not insightful commentary but it gets you excited! it's just music, after all - you wanna be able to sing along to it, not sit down and study it

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Greg, what you said reminds me of a Robert Wyatt interview I read. When asked about the importance of lyrics in music (not only his own), he said (sorry this is English to French then back to English)
"People I like the most generally don't write fantastic lyrics. Randy Newman writes fantastic lyrics, Stevie Wonder doesn't. But I really do prefer Stevie's record, because he works in a purely musical perspective. There is nothing worse than people who write the lyrics first then puts them into music. I cna always tell that. For instance, on Syd Barrett's "Madcap Laughs", there is this lovely James Joyce poem, but musically speaking it is the least interesting track. This is often the case of Joni Mitchell too. Once you do that, you loose the purely musical values which are so different from literary values. You're at a much less unconscious level".
Interesting point of view. I like good lyrics, but they have to follow the music rather than the other way round

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Schleuse, I actually completely agree with you. I find Imagine great more because of the arrangements and lennon's singing than the lyrics, though I do think those are beautiful too. I'll also agree that Lennon peaked in 1967. He had a truly remarkable year. I think you can make an argument that the 4 best songs he ever wrote are from 1967 (SFF, A Day, Walrus, and AYNIL). Sometimes people just go on a spree, like Wilson in 66 and Dylan in 65.

I also agree that Dylan, Springsteen, Gaye, Wonder, etc are more politically coherent, earning them extra points in my book. This is in addition to being amazing regardless of political content ofc.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

George Harrison, I think went one step further by calling out political leaders by name on "Taxman". I don't know if Dylan was calling out political leaders by name in 1966?

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Calling politicians by name in a democracy with freedom of speech doesn't make you a great lyricist.
Fela did that in Nigeria in the '70s. The government killed his mother. That makes a difference I guess.

Re: Politics in song lyrics

Typically I think politics in music speak best when couched in a "this is the story of how something political affected a single person" manner.

In other words, I'm generally much more likely to listen to something like "Fast Car" (a description of the desperation of a specific poor person without seeming prospects) than something more "policy minded" like "Free Nelson Mandela".