Sunday, 2 August 2009

Subversive Songs

On the cover of Mermaid Avenue there’s a great picture of Woody Guthrie playing a guitar painted with the words “this machine kills fascists”. It’s a good introduction to the idea of music as a subversive activity, which was taken up so enthusiastically by the next generation of American folk musicians, led by Pete Seeger and later Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary.

These men and women were subversive in a very overt political way. However, I was led to think about some more subtle forms of subversion recently while listening to one of my son’s favourites, Blackfield. A collaboration between the Israeli Aviv Geffen, and Englishman Steven Wilson (prolific songwriter and muso in a number of different guises), Blackfield are not political at all. They sing melodic rock songs of lost love and general depression. I was struck by one song in particular, called “End of the World”, which illustrates exactly what I mean.

It has a killer piano hook which sucks you into a familiar landscape of despair.

Don't you forget what I've told you
So many years
We are hopeless and slaves to our fears
We're an accident called human beings

Don't be angry for loving me baby
And say it's unreal
So many lives turned to salt
Like roses who're hiding their thorns

It's the end of the world
The end of the world
It's a prison for dreams and for hopes
And still we believe there is God
It's the end of the world
The end of the world
We're dead but pretend we're alive
Full of ignorance, fools in disguise
What is this? If indeed our humanity is a mere accident, what is the point of our lives?

In your room doing nothing
But staring at flickering screens
Streets are empty, but still you can hear
Joy of children turning to tears.
So of course in the end there’s not much else to do but

Take this pill, it will make you feel dizzy
And then give you wings
Soon, boy, you'll fall into sleep
Without nightmares, without any fears

If you wake up in hell or in heaven
Tell the angels we're here
Waiting below for a dream
Here in the garden of sin.
So, it’s a pretty song about suicide – how is that subversive? Well it’s like this. When you listen to someone like Richard Dawkins talking about “The God Delusion” and the way we’re now freed from this delusion by the advances of modern science, it all sounds very reasonable. If you listen to someone like Ayn Rand or even Friedrich Neitzsche talking about the amazing possibilities of humanity in the absence of God, it can even sound exciting.

Music, on the other hand, is not the language science, or reason, or philosophy. It’s the language of the heart, the emotions. How does it feel to be “an accident called human beings”? How does it feel to be alone in the universe? The answer, at least for Aviv Geffen, is that it feels desperate. We want to cling on to God because without that all you can hear is the sound of children’s joy turning to tears.

I don’t know anything about Aviv Geffen’s religious views, or about Steven Wilson’s. It’s pretty safe to assume they’re not conventionally Christian or Jewish. Yet by putting that despair into song, they challenge us to look again, to see if we really are willing to accept the consequences of advocating a universe without meaning.

No comments: