Like so many, I am angry, confounded, saddened by the state of the world. 2016 just keeps kicking us in the arse. I won't spill any trite words about the power of music in troubled times. I don't even think making ourselves feel better is entirely the point. I'm wary of self-tranquilising to the point of becoming numbed or complacent; we need that sense of horror and anger to foster meaningful action. Anger, I think, is not something to be afraid of if it is not hateful or violent or self-destructive. That said, I'm aware good people need to draw strength from where they can – to be inspired, to experience catharsis, to feel soothed, to preserve their mental health – in order to be effective, to go on, to heal. And that's where music can come in. What I like to turn to runs the gamut from angry and cynical, to inspiring and thought-provoking, to calming and reassuring. Here are a few songs I thought I'd share.
Starting at the angry, cynical end of things, Jarvis Cocker's blunt song 'Running The World' from 2006 pulled no punches in describing exactly who has the power in the world, and is unfortunately truer than ever. The song is an incisive, darkly funny critique of capitalism and politics.
Barry McGuire's classic scathing protest song, 'Eve Of Destruction', perfectly captured the countercultural mood of its day. Written by nineteen-year-old P.F. Sloan, it was a number one hit for McGuire in 1965, and it's hard to imagine anyone spitting out these lyrics of disgust and frustration better than he does in his blistering growl. Many of the lyrics are, obviously, specific to political circumstances of the time, but much of it still resonates and could apply as readily today. Particularly potent is McGuire's delivery of the line about religious hypocrisy: "Hate your next-door neighbour / but don't forget to say grace." Also, message aside, I am a fan of the fact the word 'coagulating' is incorporated into a rhyme.
It's interesting when a work of art's message feels relevant again and you find its meaning becomes clearer than before. I guess I always saw this as a somewhat fatalistic song about impending doom in an age of atomic fear, but now it's hitting me as a rebuke against complacency, against refusing to see potential catastrophe, and against the normalisation of things that should rightly invoke alarm. Sloan saw it as "a love song to and for humanity" and "a prayer" and hoped it would help "open a dialogue", but instead he and McGuire were ousted from the music industry.
"This is a cold war, you better know what you're fighting for" sings Janelle Monáe so powerfully on 'Cold War', from her 2010 Afrofuturist pop masterpiece, The ArchAndroid. The line 'I was made to believe there was something wrong with me' always chokes me up, and now more than ever, too many are afraid of their children growing up to feel like this. Monáe has said of this and other songs of hers: "I try to create songs that are uplifting because this world can drive you insane". 'Cold War', though it faces a sense of pain and injustice head-on, is not a bitter resignation; it ultimately uplifts:
Bring wings to the weak and bring grace to the strong
Make all evil stumble as it flies in the world
All the tribes come and the mighty will crumble
We must brave this night and have faith in love
Stereolab singularly master the curious art of infusing appealing avant-pop with a political message, and somehow turning prosaic, unmusical lines into beautifully catchy melodies. 1993's 'French Disko' is a classic in this vein. Embedded in its perky, retro grooves are philosophically rich lyrics that draw on concepts of absurdism, and seem to repudiate the inaction of a nihilistic view. The line about "acts of rebellious solidarity", among others, references Camus: "Man's solidarity is founded upon rebellion, and rebellion, in its turn, can only find its justification in this solidarity." (The Rebel, 1951). Ultimately, though Stereolab's style of writing lyrics strays from that of traditional pop, they also use something of orthodox pop form to simplify and democratise a theme. Rather than parroting the complex, sometimes abstruse language of the philosophers, they offer a simple, accessible message here: however futile things may seem, "there are still things worth fighting for":
Though this world's essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn't call for bubble withdrawal
I've been told it's a fact of life, men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for
'Darkness Turns To Light' is a beautiful sentiment that I need to believe at the moment, though I don't want to think it's just a given – something that happens magically or by natural order, without needed action. As White Poppy, Canada's Crystal Dorval delivers hope and inspiration soothingly on this track from her 2013 self-titled album. She has talked about making music to help anxiety, and I've found there is something uniquely relaxing about listening to her sounds. Her catalogue is well worth a listen if you are looking for something to calm your mind.
On this gently motivating cut from his classic 1971 album, Roots, Curtis Mayfield implores us to "withdraw from the darkness and look to the light" and remember "there's still a lot of love among us". He also eloquently calls for taking action:
We who are young should now take a stand
Don't run from the burdens of women and men
Continue to give, continue to live for what you know is right
Mayfield was a true believer in the message of his anthem, and particularly hoped, as suggested by the lyrics above and those that later ask of the listener "when you have your young, remember this song", it would speak to youth in a lasting way, saying:
If ever you could gather up a bunch of kids, sit them down and sing just one song, this is it. You would not be there as an entertainer. You would be instilling a message in our young. Within the song is life's story—the hopefulness...the sweetness—and the bottom line to keep on keeping on.