Separating The Singer From The Song

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BACK IN THE DAYS when I boasted much more hair and carried far fewer kilos, I was right into (as we said back then) writing songs. One of those songs, The Other Side of Town, opened like this:

Well, the street has been my teacher

And poverty my nurse

Oh dear, how my family and friends chortled. “You wouldn’t know how to live out on the street if your life depended on it!”, snorted one.

“Raised in poverty?”, laughed another, “you must be writing about somebody else!”

Which, of course I was. Though the song is written in the first person, it is not in the least autobiographical. The “hero” of the song: a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, who has fallen hard for a young woman from the right side; is entirely fictional.

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In fine romantic style, he contrasts his sufficient-unto-the-day approach to life with the complicated mix of expectations and aspirations of his middle-class girlfriend:

But you have built a puzzle

And I’m the piece that just don’t fit

You fret about tomorrow

Whereas I don’t care a bit

Aware of the sheer unlikelihood of two people so dissimilar enjoying a long relationship, the hero anticipates his lover’s decision to break it off and forgives her in advance. All he asks is that he not be forgotten:

I don’t mind that you refuse me

I don’t want to tie you down

Just remember me as someone from

The other side of town.

Banal and adolescent? I’m afraid so. But my family and friends reaction to The Other Side of Town provided me with a very early introduction to a problem that is still very much with us. Is it possible to judge a work of art purely on its own merits? Can we truly set aside what we know about the artist and focus exclusively on what he or she has created? Can the singer ever be separated from the song?

Quite a few of my friends just couldn’t manage it. They simply couldn’t reconcile the rather innocent lad who had written and was singing the song, with the worldly, Luke Perry-type character who was its subject.

“What do you know about any of this stuff? Where do you get off pretending to be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks?”

Forty-five years after the song was written, I suspect a younger generation of listeners would recoil with additional disdain from the lofty condescension and “mansplaining” contained in the lyrics. “Bloody hell!”, they’d guffaw, “the poor girl’s well rid of him! What an obnoxious macho prick!”

To which, in my own defence, I would offer up L. P. Hartley’s famous observation: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

If we are to admire, or condemn, artists – as artists – we should do so solely on the basis of whether or not their creations move us towards a deeper understanding of the drama and the mystery of human experience. As individuals, they may be deeply flawed beings. Indeed, deeply flawed individuals and great art have a curious way of feeding off one another. But does that mean that we should burn all of James K. Baxter’s magnificent poetry, because in a private letter to a friend he admits to raping his wife?  Should Beat It and Billie Jean never be played again, because Michael Jackson stands accused of being a paedophile?

That great beauty, and profound insights into what it means to be human, can emerge from such broken vessels surely only makes the miracle of artistic creation all the more extraordinary. The Italian painter, Caravaggio, was a murderer. Does that require us to turn his dark and deeply disturbing paintings to the wall? Or, does knowing that he killed a man allow us to see just that little bit further into the darkness that dwells in us all?

Because the truth of the matter is that no human-being is entirely guiltless. We are all flawed in ways we hope that none of those who know us and love us will ever discover. Artists allow us to expiate our guilt by making visible in words, paintings, drama and music the hidden sources of human distemper. They are society’s antibodies: the ones who make sure that we possess the strength to resist the sins that devoured them.

As I wrote all those years ago:

The road you walked was steady

While the trail I blazed seemed rough

But, girl, the alley always threatens those

Who will not call its bluff.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Well I suspect that The Labour Party over taking The National Party in the polls has something to do with concerns over Climate Change shooting up dramatically so the use of this is being cleverly co-opted, so let’s give the other social justice movements something to bulster the ranks of #Metoo and defuse the movements as if commercial radio is opposed to pedophilia. Of course commercial media are feigning outrage over Micheal Jackson and can they change political discourse, well sure they can. I mean if they’re truly against pedophilia and not just padding ratings wouldn’t there be a campaign against pedophile priests and CYFs and the system that protect pedophiles in New Zealand, surely that is a consideration kiwi style.

    One of the reasons left wing MPs in particular fail to win an electorate as an independent or outside of a major party is because poor people ask themselves in the voting booth if they are able to run the country and then they vote for the rich white guy so left wingers don’t win electorates with out party machines. Well that’s not the case with the Māori Seat electorates. It’s possible for Māori electorates to vote in candidates who are just like them. So the mentalities can be changed to promote something as assaulted as climate change and it can be changed back. This is one of the ways it can be done and there are plenty of other coordinated efforts to deny climate change is a thing and that we have to do something about it.

    Take water. This is the first time Māori has an opportunity to secure a strategic asset of national importance and political power and it’s interesting how the government across too parties have reacted. The government and private corporations still want to privatise water but they learn that the methods are dangerous because of revolution throwing out big business. So the government comes in and gives the community wonderful lines that if you do this the water will be wonderful if you let us buy this land here that no one is using and straight away people start organising against it.

    From the point of view of the rich and powerful class warfare never stops. It’s permanent, they’re involved in a constant, bitter class war and they are very self conscious about it. They want every one else not to participate.

  2. Do you really think that Wagner was society’s antibody ? The one who made sure that we possess the strength to resist the sins that devoured them ?

    Do you not think that his magnificent music may have co-existed with his anti-Semitism without great profundity of philosophical thought in its creation ?

    It’s interesting because the lovely Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” was banned by the Catholic Church – and may still be – because one of the gentlemen was morally suspect- on fairly technical theological grounds I think. But I doubt there was any fear listeners might experience crises of faith after hearing it – the guy was likely just being clobbered for incorrect thinking.

    But you know, if Michael Jackson’s songs now conjure up for his listeners, images of him buggering little boys, who wants that in their heads ? Who wants to even think about it, true or not ?

  3. Just two examples , I played both these songs to my elderly mother a couple of years ago , didn’t say who performed them and asked her opinion. She thought they were OK. Then I told her who performed them. She wasn’t phased one bit.

    —————————–

    Charles Manson – Look At Your Game Girl

    There’s a time for livin’
    The time keeps on flyin’
    Think you’re lovin’ baby
    And all ya do is cryin’

    Can ya feel are those feelin’s real
    Look at your game girl
    Look at your game girl

    What a mad delusion
    Livin’ in that confusion
    Frustration an’ doubt
    Can you ever live without the game
    The sad sad game
    Mad game

    Just to say you love’s not enough
    Ifn you can’t be true
    You can tell those lies baby
    But you’re only foolin’ you

    Can you feel are those feelin’s real
    Look at your game girl
    Go on look at your game girl

    Ifn you can’t feel
    And the feelin’s ain’t real
    Then you better stop tryin’
    Or you’re gonna play cryin’
    Stop tryin’ or you’re gonna play cryin’
    That’s the game
    Sad sad game
    Mad game
    Sad game

    ——————————-

    Get on Home
    Charles Manson

    When I was a little boy
    I used to hang my feet
    In the muddy waters
    That run through your streams
    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    When I see a wagon it was coming down the street
    Filled with feed and swine and such
    And that’s a lot of meat

    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    Now you see them little boys at their mother’s feet
    They’ve learned how to hate and cut and even kill the free
    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    The fields they are golden now the cycle will complete
    In order to harvest the grain
    You got to cut the weed

    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    When I was a little girl I used to want your cow
    Begin to go across the way
    Cause the fires are burning now
    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    When you see the children x’s on their head
    If you dare look at them soon you will be dead

    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    Babies gonna disappear from the momma’s arms
    There’s gonna be a lot of fear
    But we’ll be on the run
    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    Daddy used to beat me
    He’d treat me like himself
    He taught me the ways of a man
    And now I’m by myself

    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home
    Love is all forever and its been your slave
    Now it’s gonna open your eyes
    And rise you from your hate
    Get on home, get on home
    Come on home little children, come on home

    —————————-

    • Interscope record producer Jimmy Lovine, also signed Dr Dre straight out of NWA, Eminiem, Tupac, 50cent, Laby Gaga. Mainstream is something not normally applied to Jimmy Lovine. He’s a machine.

  4. A difficult decision to make, I think, that about Michael Jackson and his music.

    In some way one may say, those that consumed and bought his products were enablers of the alleged abuse, as they offered the creator of the product wealth and a corresponding lifestyle, where he became untouchable for many, even to law enforcement to some degree.

    Now the inheritors of his wealth act as enablers of abuse, as the money earned by selling the products gives them wealth and a powerful voice also.

    So not playing the music may be a necessary step to address the imbalance of voices out there, which we need a balance in, to get to the truth of the matter.

    In the old days, writing and playing a song, more for entertainment than money, that was something more innocent and less worrisome to do, even when the creator had a different personality and identity to persons portrayed in any creation.

    It simply would not have mattered much.

  5. Marc, you are so very right.

    Today’s UK Independent writes: Streaming Michael Jackson’s music is sending money to people who may have helped cover up child sex abuse.

    Trotter asserts that we should admire artists – ‘solely on the basis of whether or not their creations move us towards a deeper understanding of the drama and the mystery of human experience.’ The problem with this is that (a) it is a highly subjective value judgment, and (b) it assumes that this is why folk seek good musical experiences, which ain’t necessarily so.

    All child abuse is horrific. So much total crap is claimed about what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger – which is just another cop-out that suits the lazy or the dishonest.

    There are things which happen to both small and big people which cripple them psychologically for the rest of the lives – make their lives forever painful; so if someone is writing meaningful songs with his right hand and torturing with the left, then he can sod off.

    A NZ judge gave a soft sentence to a pedophile comedian because he brought so much pleasure into other people’s – viz adults’- lives. The sentence was successfully appealed; the original sentence was a stark example of the pleasure principle superseding any moral principles – not good enough when it comes to children.

    There are times when what is important is the singer, not the song, and surely this is one of them.

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