Saturday, April 17, 2010

Political Music: When They Don't Know Or Understand What They're Singing About!

As irritating as actors like Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson can be when they mouth off about political issues they don’t understand, I think musicians and singers are even worse. That’s because they can shove any ignorant messages they want to into their songs and then immediately record them. Actors have to wait for the right film or play to come along that reflects their views and sometimes that never happens.

I was reminded of this while listening to a new Starbucks CD entitled World Is India, a compilation featuring Indian music spanning the last 45 years or so, including tracks from Ravi Shankar, R. D. Burman and Asha Bhosle. But it was a song, "Mother India," from a group I didn’t know named Fun-Da-Mental that caught my attention. The disc’s liner notes indicate that the group is a highly politicized (read left-wing) England-based group which was created to address the issues surrounding the Asian communities in Britain. "Mother India," which was recorded in 1995, is supposed to be a paean to the strong Indian women behind the country’s great men, so imagine my surprise when I overheard a reference to Palestine and on closer listen heard the group praise "Leila Khaled, freedom fighter of Palestine."

How an Arab terrorist who was involved in two major airline hijackings, fortunately without any attendant loss of innocent life (but not for lack of trying), finds her way into a song about India is odd. However, upon further research I discovered that the group, which is led by Aki Nawas, who is Muslim, takes many of its cues from the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and has released albums with tasty titles such as Why America Will Go To Hell and All Is War (The Benefits of G-Had). They’ve also compared Osama Bin Laden to Che Guevara, which makes sense only if you recognize that the two men are both terrorists and not the heroes Fun-Da-Mental makes them out to be.

I’m presuming that David R. Legry, the compiler of World Is India, didn’t pay close attention to the lyrics since I can’t imagine that any mainstream U.S. music label post 9/11 would release a song praising terrorists. Incidentally, I’m not advocating censorship here; if you want to hear the "Mother India" track, you can buy the Fun-Da-Mental disc, but that irresponsible track did not need to be included on the World Is India CD. But whatever the reason for its inclusion – I’m still waiting on Starbucks to explain this offensive song choice on the CD – it’s not the only time an over-the-top pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel message, has been inserted into a song. Far from it, in fact.

Singer/songwriter Tom Waits – who unlike Fun-Da-Mental, rarely ventures into politics – had the bright idea in his 2006 3-CD collection Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, to include "Road to Peace," a highly contentious song which ostensibly attacks both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least that’s what Waits told biographer Barney Hoskyns in the book Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits. Hoskyns, however, by soliciting a quote from Waits about the song, seems to realize how problematic it actually is. Far from attacking both sides, Waits virulently assails Israel in the track, accusing the Jewish state of deliberately endangering infants in its retaliatory attacks against Hamas and questioning why the U.S. is supplying arms to Israel, yet he goes out of his way to humanize Arabs in his song. He mentions a Palestinian suicide bomber and a senior Hamas militant (appropriating the popular media term to denote terrorists) by name, but never bothers to give the names of the victims of said Palestinian or the Israeli soldiers killed by the Hamas operatives.

A throwaway line referring to (then Israeli PM) Ariel Sharon and current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is meant to castigate both leaders who are "lost on the road to peace," but they’re symbols of Wait’s wrath, nothing more. The song is offensive on many levels, indulging in the trendy moral equivalence of the left by stating that both sides harbour fundamentalists who teach hatred of the other. Of course, some Israelis may hate or teach hatred of Arabs, but the Israeli school system and media do not promote racist anti-Arab attitudes, unlike the Palestinian (and Arab) media and school system, which are rife with anti-Semitism.

I’d like to think that Waits meant simply to decry the deaths on both sides of the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as indicated to his biographer, without realizing how hurtful and ignorant "Road to Peace" is, but I don’t know if that is indeed the case as I never heard back from him when I wrote him a letter, care of his record label, about this.

I would say, however, that Steve Earle, who tops Waits in the appalling song lyrics category, knows exactly what he is doing when he gets political. He’s understood to be strongly left-wing but even by those standards, I can’t imagine anything more disgusting than his song "Rich Man’s War," which appears on his 2004 The Revolution Starts…Now album. In that song, Earle actually equates American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with a Palestinian suicide bomber residing in Gaza. In Earle’s amazingly warped world view, they’ve all been sent to kill by rich men in a rich man’s war. That’s idiotic on so many levels, from the factual to the moral. I seriously doubt that it’s actually a case of rich Palestinians always sending poorer ones to their deaths, more a case of older men sending younger, more impressionable men to die. What Earle is actually saying is that his countrymen are setting out to kill civilians in the same manner as terrorists do. That’s not just beyond the pale, it’s treasonous, a charge which some have stuck on Earle but which the media, including many rock critics, seems to overlook and/or explain away by citing his supposed righteous anger. The rhetoric continues on his album Jerusalem, where one song title spells America with a 'k', denoting Earle’s further depiction of his country as fascist. The media also gives a free pass to rocker Patti Smith, who in exihibting her extreme anti-Americanism on albums such as her 2000 disc Gung Ho really is as reprehensible as Earle.

When it comes to Israel, Earle, not surprisingly, has something of a problem with the Jewish state, too. From the song "Jerusalem," come these lyrics:

“I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then”

Earle's reference to 'death machines' obviously means Israel since she is the only one with the tanks. The part about all sides laying down their arms and the reference to not learning to hate, again, smacks of the moral equivalance so beloved of musicians on the left. Ironically, had Israel's existence been accepted by the Arabs in the first place, the part of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state, would likely still be in Arab hands. But then again, had the Palestinians accepted Israel's generous offers of land (made by the two Ehuds, ex-Israeli Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert) they would have had a state by now. Funny that there aren't any songs asking why the Palestinians have been so adamant about not making the compromises for peace that are routinely asked only of the Israelis, including recently by President Barack Obama, who should know better.

Lest you think I’m only picking on the left, musician Ted Nugent, who can charitably be labeled a right-wing gun nut, recently pronounced President Obama to be the reincarnation of Mao Tse-Tung. Granted, that was an idiotic utterance that he hasn't put into a song – yet!

Fortunately, some artists do love or understand Israel. Lyrics from Rosanne Cash’s "Western Wall" (2003), referring to the sole holy remnant still extant of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, goes as follows: “It’s a crumblin’ pile of broken stones/ It ain’t much but it might be home/ If I ever loved a place at all/ It’s the Western Wall.” (Ironically, Earle is one of the vocalists on another song from Rules of Travel, the album which contains "Jerusalem.") And Bob Dylan, in his song "Neighborhood Bully" from the underrated Infidels (1983) album, wittily lambastes the worldwide anti-Israel prejudice that condemns the Jewish state whenever she has the temerity to protect herself, though he does get it wrong when he sings that Israel has to make do with obsolete weapons it gets from other countries to defend herself. That hasn’t been the case since the modern state of Israel came into being in 1948; at least the weaponry Israel has access to and makes is state of the art. Dylan, however, loses brownie points for not defending his song, or Israel, when attacked by an anti-Israel reporter in a Rolling Stone interview.

Of course, singers and songwriters should not shy away from political commentary in their work, but only if they know what they’re talking about. Or as writer Harlan Ellison aptly puts it, “We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions.” Informed opinions can lead to powerful songs like 1930s classics "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," written by E. Y. 'Yip' Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, and "Strange Fruit," penned by Abel Meeropol (made famous by Billie Holiday); Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (1964), Nina Simone’s "Mississippi Goddamn" (1964), Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (1984), and Leonard Cohen's "Democracy" (1992), to name a few notable and famous ones. But when it comes to songs tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict or U.S. foreign policy, too many of these songs and the artists singing them need to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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