Oil and Water

December 3rd, 2006

So some of you may have noticed that we just had an election. And so I’ve been thinking more about the nature of politics and songwriting. In my enormous oeuvre, I’ve only written about four songs which could reasonably described as political. Two of those songs, “My Fellow Americans” and “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”, are “a pox on both your houses” songs – they lampoon the process without really taking sides. Those are pretty harmless, especially if your persona is “everything is fair game”, which is pretty much me. Another, “When the Empire Falls”, has political overtones, but is more of a socio-historical commentary (although I certainly meant it as a fairly vicious indictment). The fourth song, “Trans Canada Two”, was the subject of a previous newsletter – the song is complicated, but pretty angry, and the commentary in the newsletter is still the only commentary I’ve ever sent out which lost me a reader.

I play the first two songs fairly frequently; the third, occasionally; and the fourth, hardly at all. Note the pattern. And frankly, it fits with my own listening preferences. I have very strong political convictions. I donated literally thousands of dollars to candidates during the most recent political season. I read political blogs every day, and virtually every day I’m angry. But that’s not what I want to hear when I go out to hear music, and I’m pretty sure that my preferences jibe with most other listeners when I say that I don’t like being ambushed. It’s kind of like prosletyzing – no one wants to be offered a plate of innocent-looking cookies, only to be subjected to a surprise a lecture on the virtues of, oh, say, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So we end up with two categories of musicians: those whose politics are part of their act (e.g. the pants-pissingly funny Roy Zimmerman), and those whose politics had better damn well stay out of their act (e.g., me).

And that’s just fine with me. In spite of my deep political convictions, I don’t want to be a political songwriter, for a number of good reasons.

First, I’m not a good songwriter when I’m angry. Most people aren’t.

Second, it’s a lot easier to alienate people when you’re singing about politics or religion. I have many things to worry about on stage (whether I’m going to break a string, whether my fly is open, etc.), but moral outrage from the audience isn’t one of them; I’m pretty sure the chances that someone will hear “Five Dwarf Day” and say “Dwarves??? I’m never coming to hear you again” are just about zero.

Third, most political music, frankly, stinks. In fact, most political art of any genre is awful. It’s typically simplistic, unsubtle, and literalist: both bad politics and bad art. It’s hard enough to be funny, and hard enough to be serious: try being one or the other and politically insightful at the same time.

Yes, I do write the occasional political tune, and even perform the occasional political tune. But I’m only likely to play “When the Empire Falls” or “Trans Canada Two” if someone else has played a political tune first, and the room doesn’t seem to mind. Overly cautious? Perhaps. But it’s what my audience expects – in fact, what I’ve conditioned my audience to expect – and it’s what I owe them.

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