Top Ten Songs That Reflect My Politics (Kind Of)
h, the US Presidential Election. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Canadian, of course I’ve been following it. It’s hard not to, and it’s not as if it has no impact on my life. But yes, again, I’m Canadian and merely a music writer, so there’s not much point in trying to convince any of you Yankees to vote in any particular way. I mean, I do think Bush should have been impeached over the whole Valerie Plame thing, but whatever. This top ten may be political, but it has little to do with the contenders.
Instead, when I started thinking about the election and Stylus, I thought about the fact that while art and politics have had a long and productive relationship, it’s kind of rare for someone to point at a song and say “there, that’s what I believe in, that’s what I vote for”. Attempting to do the same for just myself may be pointlessly idiosyncratic, I think the world might be a more interesting place if more of us tried this sort of thing. Of course, my priorities here may be different than yours.
I suppose at least some background is necessary; yes, Canada skews slightly further to the left than America, but even up here I’m a bit of an oddity, having never voted any further to the right than the New Democratic Party (NDP, sort of the equivalent of the American Greens and the British Liberal Democrats), and even they depress me sometimes. I’m not trying to focus on specific policy issues, but the broader thought that underpins them all. On with the show…
10. Songs: Ohia – “Didn’t It Rain”
Well, first of all it’s pretty despairing of government/business in the first place: “They think you got it, they’re gonna beat it outta you / Through work and debt, whatever all else there is”. But this sets out one of the tenets of what we can broadly call the liberal ethos pretty concisely: “If I see you struggle I will not turn my back… / I’m gonna help you how I can / You see me struggle all night and / Give me a hand ‘cause I’m in need / I’ll call you friend indeed”. I’m sick and tired of people complaining about taxes. If tax funds are misused, yes, that’s a problem. But if they’re going to things like health care and education and public assistance, hell, let me pay more taxes. A society that abandons its less successful members is not one I wish to be a part of. But it’s worth noting that right after the last lyrics quoted above, Molina says, “But I’m gonna watch my own back”. There’s a difference between a just and caring society that offers help to those in need and one that coddles people so that they no longer have any sense of personal responsibility. I can believe that we shouldn’t be cutting the welfare state to bits and also that you have a responsibility as a human being to look after your self without any cognitive dissonance, thank you very much.
09. Nellie McKay – “Inner Peace”
One of my strongest political beliefs: Politics are not that important. Oh, the effects of same are incredibly important, especially when people wind up being hurt and killed, but in many cases those people never should have been in harm’s way. How much damage has been done over the years by people taking ideology too seriously? All Nellie wants is inner peace, certainly, and so do the rest of us, but while the restless Ms. McKay is castigating herself, I’d like to point out that if everyone was busy focusing not on whether the free market is intrinsically good or evil (it’s neither, of course) but on how to be a better person and live a better life (where better /= more toys) the world would be much nicer. You don’t want to ignore what happens out there, but neither do you want to let your convictions make you a jerk.
08. King Cobb Steelie – “Rational”
I don’t care if I rhapsodized about this recently; it was still instrumental to my developing political consciousness. Any system that practices some form of isolation to the extent that it’s unusual to grieve for the victims of injustice elsewhere has gone wrong at some point. Of course, “Rational” still leaves open the (perhaps unanswerable) question of what we should do about it; and since a good majority of my political opinions can be boiled down to the idea that we’re being presented with a false dichotomy (in this case between foreign overextension and heads in sand) and that there’s another option present, if we can just locate it. While I worried how to make the rent someone’s getting a bullet in the head, but what am I going do about it? I don’t know, but shouldn’t we be talking about this?
07. Joy Division – “Atrocity Exhibition”
Perhaps the most astute thing Ian Curtis ever wrote was this equation of the practice of allowing people to point and laugh at asylum inmates with the gladiators of Rome and elsewhere. I’m not a Kantian in many ways, but both practices wind up violating his one principle that I agree with on the strongest possible terms: Human beings must never be used as means to an end, but only as ends in themselves. Show me a government that never violates this idea and I’ll move there. Is it possible? Maybe not. But it’d be nice to at least aim for it.
06. Sixtoo – “The Honesty Of Constant Human Error”
Any good system has a certain amount of faith in its users. As our governments get older and more and more people find ways in which our systems are not idiot-proof, those same systems (chiefly law) have less and less faith in their users. But to run politics on the principle that a few bad apples should indeed spoil the bunch for the whole lot for the rest of time is ridiculous. There has to be some way to prevent abuse without constantly circumscribing the rest of us. Of course, I don’t know the answer to this any more than anyone else, but it’s a question we should be asking.
05. New Order – “Regret”
I know, Sumner writes some true howlers, but I still think “I would like a place I can call my own / And have a conversation on the telephone” is reaching towards something significant. Too many people who are in a position to do anything about it seem to consider governmental processes more important than the people involved. What we want, en masse, is usually pretty simple; our rights, a little dignity, a little consideration. In the narrow view it may appear slightly less efficient to design our governments to do this, to make people not dread dealing with them, but it’s like redesigning a business to be environmentally friendly; in the long term it makes good business as well as moral sense.
04. Low – “Violence”
I’m against the death penalty not because I don’t believe there are some acts for which death is a fitting punishment (although I think that’s definitely arguable), but because my father is a lawyer. Growing up, I learned far too much about the fallibility of the legal system to think that just because someone is convicted of a crime we can confidently put them to death. No, you can’t trust violence. And that’s only the most concrete example; the stuff rebounds on you every chance it gets. To paraphrase Mark Millar, the world’s not a good enough place for me to be a true pacifist, but I’ll get as close as I can, thanks.
03. Super Furry Animals – “Hermann Loves Pauline”
I think it’s important that although the Furries ask repeatedly “Why do you do what they tell you to”, this isn’t another bland indictment of conformity. Sometimes doing what the government tells you to do is for best, after all, and just being rebellious all the time with no good reason is nearly as bad as doing everything you’re told to. The important part is to constantly examine why you do what you do, in politics as in everything else. Doubt is an essential component of any mature political philosophy, if you’re not willing to re-examine why you believe what you believe and why you do what you do, you’ve got a problem.
02. Stereolab – “Slow Fast Hazel”
No, this isn’t about Marxism, at least not for me. “Won’t go back to the days we couldn’t even start a fire” is about not throwing about the baby with the bathwater. There are a lot of things wrong with current systems, no argument here, but there are pretty impressive amounts of things right, too. Even if we could go back, it’d be foolishness bordering on idiocy to do so. Any kind of politics based around some sort of regression to a purer time in history before capitalism/communism/whatever corrupting things is deeply suspicious and even if it doesn’t lead to fascism, tends to be hideously unworkable. Work with what you’ve got first.
01. Hefner – “The Greater London Radio”
“I used to think it was our politics, not how we treat people, that tells us who we are / I was wrong”. I’ve always thought that whole “the personal is the political” thing was misguided. The emphasis should be the other way around: your political beliefs are an extension of who you are rather than the other way around. You can be the most right-on radical in the world politically speaking and still be bad at being a decent person. Politics aren’t something to be forgotten about, but the idea of living ones’ whole life as a political act strikes me as a sad waste. This is a love song, not a song about politics, and that’s how it should be. Go out and get informed and vote your conscience, yes, but don’t get caught up in the punditry and lose sight of the other important things in life.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-10-29