December 17, 2017

Music Monday: In the Culture Wars, Binary Thinking Goes Both Ways

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Note from CM
: I hereby designate Mondays as “Music Mondays” for the foreseeable future here on IM. We haven’t talked much about music and what we’re listening to and our thoughts about it all lately. I hope Mondays will provide us opportunities to explore the subject from a variety of angles. We’ll start today with commentary on some popular music here in the U.S. as it relates to progressive politics.

• • •

I have always been a fan of Jackson Browne and his music. His was one of the first concerts I attended, way back in the early ’70’s when part of my developing persona took on hippie fashion and I learned to appreciate literate voices from the left. My midwestern conservative Republican family, predictably, was not so impressed, and probably a little worried about my path. But for me, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll was always more than a party or personal rebellion against any and all authority just for the sake of it. I was an idealist, even utopian in my youth, and I not only loved the music but was captured by the dream of this world becoming a peaceable kingdom. Frankly, it’s one of the factors that led me back to Jesus and the promises of God, whereas I noticed that a lot of other folks just got lost in anger, rhetoric, and self-destructive behavior.

The 1960’s and 70’s produced (for many complex reasons) a mixture that gave birth to the past generation’s “culture wars,” which have dominated our American religious and political scenes. Here on Internet Monk, we have traditionally critiqued the right side of the spectrum, though in the early days of the blog, Michael expressed very conservative political and social opinions. Since then, we have focused our attention on the “right” because one of the biggest stories for those of us who came out of evangelical and fundamentalist cultures has been the rise of the religious right and its impact on American evangelicalism. Let’s just say many of us don’t think that has been a good thing.

But at heart, what I find personally is that I don’t fit comfortably on either “side” of the culture wars. Here again, I play the mongrel part. And I find binary thinking and talk about “sides” and “battle lines” and “winning” and “losing” problematic at best, ugly, contemptible, and dangerous at worst. No matter who is doing the thinking and talking.

Like a pied piper, music led the way for the counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s. Many of those same artists, like Jackson Browne, continue to use their music to promote causes. The song I highlight today, however, goes beyond advancing a cause and exhibits the same binary culture war thinking that I have found problematic on the right. The title gives it away: “Which Side Are You On?” The video is taken from an “Occupy” rally for which he wrote the song. You can find the fully produced version on Browne’s latest album, Standing In The Breach, and there it’s slick, catchy, and effective. I’ve put up this unplugged and public version today because it brings out the political message and context even more clearly.

I’m sure Browne and others who use their music this way see themselves as standing in a prophetic tradition, speaking truth to power. And perhaps there are times to be “in your face” and to put things this starkly. As you listen to the song, however, I think you’ll hear some of the same falsely binary and apocalyptic thinking that the “other side” has promoted.

There’s a restlessness out in the street there’s a question in the air
How long if this theft goes on will our country still be here?
People know the game is rigged even as they play
They see their expectations slowly slip away
They’ve got subsidies for billionaires, there’s a bailout for the banks
A monopoly on medicine, and a sale on armored tanks
The whole damned country’s being sold – out that revolving door
Between Washington and Wall Street like it’s one big Dollar Store

Come on come on come on if you’re coming
Come on come on come on
Come on come on come on if you’re coming
Which side are you on?
Come on come on come on if you’re coming
Battle lines are drawn
Come on come on come on if you’re coming
Which side – which side are you on?

Whether I agree with him or not, I fail to see how maintaining this approach represents a strategy that ultimately gets the blessing of him who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

 

Comments

  1. Dan from Georgia says:

    Looking forward to this Monday series!

  2. “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
    We never got it off on that revolution stuff
    What a drag
    Too many snags..”

    ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKvNtAVZyOc

    • “speed jive don’t want to stay alive when you’re twenty five “. Been there. Never thought I’d see 25 and now I wonder about 60.

  3. Yep. Harkens back to the ol’ “You’re either with us or against us.”

    • When speaking about humans, Jesus said just the opposite:
      Whoever is not against us is for us.
      Mark 9:40

  4. doubting thomas says:

    Which side are you on is as American as apple pie. The question came up in the 60’s, the union movement, the civil war, all the way back to our revolution.

    • Our whole political dispensation is set up as an endless binary opposition between Democrats and Republicans, who routinely resort to the old “with us or against us” political ploy, either implicitly or explicitly, even as they’re cutting back room deals with the opposition. Browne is one of the “useful idiots” fielded by one side of this political dispensation.

    • It seems downright Human to me. Watch parliamentary debates in England or France; Americans hold no license on divisiveness and rancor.

      As someone who watches C-SPAN there are days I wish our legislators had the p???-n-vinegar one occasionally sees in British parliamentarians; they really know how to thrown down.

  5. Perhaps we need an outside perspective on this question. A British one to be exact…

    ———

    We’ll be fighting in the streets
    With our children at our feet
    And the morals that they worship will be gone
    And the men who spurred us on
    Sit in judgement of all wrong
    They decide and the shotgun sings the song

    I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
    Take a bow for the new revolution
    Smile and grin at the change all around
    Pick up my guitar and play
    Just like yesterday
    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
    We don’t get fooled again

    The change, it had to come
    We knew it all along
    We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
    And the world looks just the same
    And history ain’t changed
    ‘Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

    I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
    Take a bow for the new revolution
    Smile and grin at the change all around
    Pick up my guitar and play
    Just like yesterday
    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
    We don’t get fooled again
    No, no!

    I’ll move myself and my family aside
    If we happen to be left half alive
    I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky
    Though I know that the hypnotized never lie
    Do ya?

    There’s nothing in the streets
    Looks any different to me
    And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
    And the parting on the left
    Are now parting on the right
    And the beards have all grown longer overnight

    I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
    Take a bow for the new revolution
    Smile and grin at the change all around
    Pick up my guitar and play
    Just like yesterday
    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
    We don’t get fooled again
    Don’t get fooled again
    No, no!

    Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

    Meet the new boss
    Same as the old boss

  6. Music is by its nature a medium of division; a creator of sides. The adage: the medium is the message applies. Music cannot express [except perhaps in the hands of a true master] subtlety. What a song expresses must be straight-forward, the message must fit into a few minutes [including a lot of overhead], the terminology [words] used must be simple and common.

    Perhaps our amplified divisiveness is driven by our obsession with Music? As what music does best is amplify; it is the perfect medium for creating feedback loops, as we subject ourselves to its message over-and-over again as if we are practising self-programming.

    When music attempts to be specific it will too rapidly become dated and will fade from everyone’s play-lists. Eliza Gilkyson’s “Man Of God”, for example of a ‘specific’ Left song. It will sound anachronistic within months.

    As someone on the Left I fully admit that Left music is as bad as Right music. However, I believe this is the case because Music is NOT a helpful or productive medium. Perhaps it was more useful in the age before the recording, when *people* had to perform it rather than chips, and before it played in endless loop grinding its childish messages into people’s psyches.

    At its ‘best’ Music conveys a flim-flammy “can’t we all just get along” message. The adult answer to that question is simple: NO. Modern example: Nickelback’s “If Everyone Cared” – okay, that’s nice, but they don’t.

    If dialogue, debate, and openness are desired then Music has no role.

    • Finn, what’s some of the secular music on “the right.” I’m wracking my brain; I think there must be some but can’t come up with any specifics.

      • “Happiness Is a Warm Gun?” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

      • Tune to a “Country” station, wait likely not more than ten minutes.

        As for rock/pop the great majority of it is apolitical verging on banal.

        Wrap/Hip-Hop on the other hand is all over the map and much of it difficult to classify.

        • Tune to a “Country” station, wait likely not more than ten minutes.

          Not THESE days Finn. Watch the Country Music Awards and most of what you see and hear is either pop tunes or rock with a slight twang. Not very many Alan Jacksons or George Staights around these days.

        • Uh, Finn? Its RAP, nor WRAP!

        • I can’t do a lot of country. To me, it’s the most demonic sounding music on the radio, full of lies about God, country, relationships, idealism…all wrapped up in a giddy, good old boy, wholesome veneer.

          Rock and hip hop/rap are at least more honest.

    • As someone on the Left I fully admit that Left music is as bad as Right music.

      “Right” music? Hmm. Not much there. Maybe an occasional country song, certainly not rock and roll.

      Music as a medium for social commentary is almost entirely anti establishment, except when the “approved” leaders are in charge, then, silence. It is also skewed toward the individual crying out against injustice, or a plea for “the oppressed” to unite against…WHATEVER!

      When it is well done even a “Righty” like me can appreciate it, but too often it is just as cloying and obtuse as listening to the Carpenters singing “Muskrat Love”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      When music attempts to be specific it will too rapidly become dated and will fade from everyone’s play-lists. Eliza Gilkyson’s “Man Of God”, for example of a ‘specific’ Left song. It will sound anachronistic within months.

      “Nothing gets old-fashioned faster than over-relevance.”

      Seen any clips from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In lately? GROOVY, MAN!

      • Saw that episodes of Murphy Brown were on one of the odd cable channels a few years ago. Set up the DVR to record them as I remembered the show as being funny.

        Much/most of the humor was based on the politics of he day. It doesn’t work very well at all any more. Canceled the DVR recordings after 1 or 2 episodes.

  7. Finn, after reading your comments I have wondered why I have enjoyed music the last 62 years. Foolish me

    • I never said it wasn’t enjoyable. I said it wasn’t productive; it is not helpful to discourse, it is an identity [tribe] building tool, if it has a use beyond entertainment.

      • That sounds about right to me, Finn.

      • Isn’t building a tribe productive? Isn’t it helpful for discourse? Doesn’t it have a use beyond entertainment?

        You’d need to unpack a lot of this, since I don’t see it, and in fact would vigorously disagree.

        • Music can’t heal the problems of the world, but it can go some way to making life more livable and human, as do the other arts, and it does connect people who might not otherwise be connected.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Finn, after reading your comments I have wondered why I have enjoyed music the last 62 years. Foolish me

      No surprise here.
      Like a Marxist, Objectivist, or Intellectual, analyzing and deconstructing in the name of Marxism or Objectivism or whatever-ism until all the enjoyment is sucked out with twelve-syllable words and Political Political Political Analysis lectures.

  8. My comp won’t play music anymore. Jackson Browne, didn’t they do “Oh won’t you stay”. Love that song. The words at the top have a lot of truth in them doesn’t matter what side you’re on. The chorus in battle lines are being drawn I see it more there is a line in the sand. I wonder what Jesus drew in the dirt and I wonder if He ever sang songs like I do out of my heart crying while he was here. I’m beginning to see this all things and the wonder and majesty of one who doesn’t fail going far beyond what I could ever dream.

    I never thought of it but I guess I’m a mongrel too. In so many ways.

    • My favorite Jackson Browne song, from the days of his early creativity, is “The Pretender.”

      “I want to know what became of the changes
      we waited for love to bring.
      Were they only the fitful dreams
      of some greater awakening?
      Yes, I’ve been aware of the time going by;
      they say in the end, it’s the wink of an eye.
      And when the morning light comes streaming in
      you get up and do it again.
      Amen!…Say it again, Amen!…”

  9. Ah. so Jackson Browne isn’t a black soul-singer from the disco era when I was living out in the woods with no electricity. Who knew? That “e” on the end of his name should have been a clue. Just one more reason for me to be glad I opted out of the 70’s.

  10. When I was a kid I thought these guys had some special insight — Lennon, McCartney, Neil Young, Jackson Browne. But after 50 years of albums, news stories, biographies, watching who they marry and divorce, what they get arrested for — I know now they have no more of a clue than anyone. I don’t want to imagine there;s no heaven. All the sinners are not saints. Of course, we will be fooled again. And I’d certainly rather give my money to a Wall Street Banker who at least dresses and goes to an office than give it to the people selling crack in front of the local convenience store.

    • The so many well dressed men ……well if not for the connections they made partying in college not so many of them would make so much money. I’ve seen what is there and you would be greatly surprised. As far as the special insight we all were at one time reaching for something and looking underneath every rock for it. Yeah rock hmmmmm guess I shouldn’t of went there.

    • I don’t believe in the ’60s
      In the golden age of pop
      You glorify the past
      When the future dries up
      I heard a singer on the radio
      Late last night
      Says he’s gonna kick the darkness
      Till it bleeds daylight
      I believe in love

      U2’s God Part II

  11. Richard Hershberger says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, “Which side are you on” is a reference to the union song of the same name. That in turn was written in 1931 in the context of a mine worker strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, in which the mine owners colluded with the local police in using terror tactics against the workers. The invocation of the line in the modern context is intended to connect the Occupy movement with the earlier labor movement.

    As for the blessing of you-know-who, He wasn’t unwilling to be confrontational, when circumstances called for it. The important point to note, and to ask of the modern use, is that Jesus punched up, not down. To overlook this leads to abuse of the precedent.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Except Occupy is mostly trust-fund kiddies and ironic hipsters instead of coal miners.

    • Thanks for filling in the history.

      And yes, Jesus was certainly confrontational at times. I’m just not sure his “cause” can be clearly identified with either left or right politics. I’m more inclined to lean a bit left because of what you’ve said here — Jesus usually punched up — abuse of power and imposition of strict moral and religious rules to guarantee the holiness of the nation is both the Pharisees’ and the Christian Right’s problem. But the left is not immune to this either, and talk of “battle lines” doesn’t help. I prefer to live in a place where it’s more about conversation than lobbing grenades from our trenches.

      • Bringing in Jesus to a political debate is usually a non-starter for me. The same goes with music debates. Jesus, indeed, spoke against Pharisaical attitudes, but He spoke more often about the Father, about man’s separation from Him, and the only path to reconciliation with God.

        Music is NOT the Gospel, but it CAN be a force for change of attitude, but only when it speaks in an eloquent way.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “That in turn was written in 1931 in the context of a mine worker strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, in which the mine owners colluded with the local police in using terror tactics against the workers”

      This was nothing unusual for that era. The Matewan Massacre is another incident, happening the 1920’s, pitting company firepower against the workers. It happened in Mingo and Logan Counties West Virginia (and surrounding areas.) Related to this are the Battle of Blair Mountain, the founding of the West Virginia State Police (by Gov John Jacob Cornwell, no relation), and the possible introduction of US troops into the conflict. This barely touches on the story of labor/owner/government tensions/open war. Then mix in fratricide, racial tensions, and immigrants. Without surprise the aftereffects still linger.

      I personally know about this locale and people (born in Huntington, WV), having worked in Matewan in the mid-1970’s with my dad, who was a contractor, and having friends, relatives, etc connected with the coal conflicts in one way or another, management and labor.

      Corporations and big money almost always come out the eventual “winner.” It’s easy to “take sides,” and I don’t blame those who do. I know which side I’m on also. The worker is left in the dust to bleed. However it’s easy to write poems or music. To kindle the fire of anger only takes a spark. However the ashes of resentment lasts forever. What is difficult is bringing peace, healing, and (maybe) justice and overcoming 100 years of spilled blood. Perhaps here are the songs waiting to be written. But will they be sung or heard?

  12. Vega Magnus says:

    Meh. I’m just gonna stick with metal. It’s typically about nothing.

  13. I wholeheartedly approve of #musicmondays! They kept me sane through most of my college experience, when I’d just unplug from the 2-3 sermon podcasts a day I was consuming and just rock/mellow/hip hop out. Looking forward to this ongoing topic.

  14. Ok, story time. Growing up in extreme indy conservative baptist fundamentalism, music was a huge issue. Thankfully, my parents were big into oldies and mom especially into the Beatles, so there was always a disconnect from the church’s teachings vs my what my parents practiced. (Although I wish mom hadn’t gone through a few phases of getting rid of all her old records, those first print Beatles vinyls would be amazing to have now)

    One of the first cds I ever purchased was the Best of Steppenwolf, I think the 20th century masters collection. Wanted it primarily because Magic Carpet Ride was in Star Trek First Contact, but I liked their other songs I heard on the radio.

    A friend of my dad’s found out I had that cd and got mad at him and me for having it. “That music is what led me into hardcore drugs! I started smoking marijuana and taking heroin way back when because of it! Only Jesus saved me! How can you let your son have that cd, he’ll get into drugs?!”

    Dad let me keep it, and we both laughed it off. It’s ridiculous to think a musical cd could force you into consuming hardcore drugs. But then again this church firmly believe anything with a beat was wicked and demonic.

    Music is awesome.

    • Though I considered tossing several vinyl records out when I first became a Christian, the only one I actually disposed of was AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Just seemed a little too “wrong message” for me. (Though now I kinda laugh at it.)

      I agree with you, Stuart. Music is awesome. Secular stuff, especially…and even some Christian…LOL.

      • I’ve had several “throw out the music” moments too…for instance, when I deleted all my Hillsong albums.

        • Yes. I’ve been wondering when we’re going to start hearing testimonies like “…and then I became a Christian and threw out all my CCM and contemporary worship music…”

  15. “But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
    ? Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

    • Funny thing about this novel, which I read in the late 1970s as part of my course work for a class in counter-cultural philosophy, is that it has nothing to do with Zen.

  16. Faulty O-Ring says:

    Suggestions for future installments:

    Edith Piaf
    Kongar-ool Ondar
    NWA
    Narges Nouhnejad Fani
    Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo

    (Too binary?)

  17. Awesome!! 🙂

  18. But at heart, what I find personally is that I don’t fit comfortably on either “side” of the culture wars. Here again, I play the mongrel part. And I find binary thinking and talk about “sides” and “battle lines” and “winning” and “losing” problematic at best, ugly, contemptible, and dangerous at worst. No matter who is doing the thinking and talking.

    I find myself in this place many times myself. And have discovered it can be a lonely place many times.

    People seem to be wired to want simple answers to any questions. Complicated or not. Which is where the side taking seems to come from. At least to me.

    But watching my mother take this to an extreme for 50 years tended to make me not go there.

  19. First, Jackson Brown rocks!
    Second, standing for something isn’t the problem. Standing for the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, or the wrong way is more likely the problem.
    Third, when the “cause” becomes everything, it is amazing what is compromised in the name of defending that cause – things far more valuable than “the cause”.
    Fourth, I don’t recall Bonheoffer ever saying, you’re either with the confessing church or you’re against it; he certainly didn’t pull many punches. I think there is a definite amount of humility, sobriety, fear, and trembling behind the courage to stand for a cause. I think Luther captured that humility when he declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other”.
    Fifth: although I have also defended analog thinking on this site on various occasions, one cannot lose sight of the fact that there are some things that remain binary. Some things are wrong all the time. There shouldn’t be a matter of taking sides. There again, I think conservatives are in danger of abandoning the truly binary moral/ethical issues in order to defend cultural war issues which are not even analog but completely propagandized apparitions.

  20. Almost forgot the most important part of the quote: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.”