This week one fellow went viral for complaining to a member of "Rage Against the Machine" that his music had lost its flavor for him because of the all the "political bs" that was now in it. This stance seemed odd to a number of onlookers, who wondered specifically what machine the former fan thought the group was raging against. Several suggestions followed (the toaster? the oven? the washing machine?). The point being that the group's music had always been political and that apparently the angry consumer hadn't noticed before.
It is a safe bet that when someone complains about an artist's political involvement, what they mean is that it is a political stance they don't agree with. Otherwise, they are not as likely to notice. This week, of course, everyone is embroiled in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, which seems to be this generation's version of the Birmingham church bombing, an incident in which white racism becomes so blatantly ugly that society is temporarily horrified and appears poised to take real action against the unacceptable. I wasn't alive during Birmingham, but the narrative was that it "shocked the conscience of the nation." A few reforms were made, some important laws passed. Then that nation hit the snooze button.
My history books lied. What they didn't emphasize is what a colossal struggle it was against the people who very much did not want things to change, even after Birmingham. The ones who were in secret sympathy with the bombers, even though they would have told you that that particular act of violence was going too far. The ones who have figured out racism is really really bad and will fight anybody who suggests they have a little of that disease in their blood because they don't want to feel bad about themselves for feeling that way. They are the reason President Johnson knew when he signed civil rights legislation that his party would "lose the South for a generation." Sometimes, when the war is not going well for them, they go underground like locusts for a period of time. And when it is safe to come out, they re-emerge. but they never go away altogether.
Some of those folks are laying low this week, trying to avoid having to notice that more and more of the neighborhood is going to hell, filled with discussions of things they don't want to discuss and which, in their hearts, disturb the peace merely by being noticeable. Others are pushing back, making the same arguments the Supreme court did in the late nineteenth century when it ruled that discrimination was entirely in black people's minds, even as those same folks were required to use the back entrance or go to the hotel at the edge of town. It's a very old argument, and getting older.
At least a few statues are finally being taken down. Most of them were put up during the 1960s to let certain people know that they needed to be afraid of certain other people. They aren't about honoring history any more than the ever-popular battle flag of the Confederacy is. Last year on vacation in a Southern state I only saw one of them the entire time. But back north, they are all over the place. They can also be found in Germany, where they form a work-around for Nazis who are not allowed by law to display swastikas, so they adopt the next best symbol of White Supremacy. Everybody knows what it means. You aren't kidding anybody.
Among the responses to the great national question that nobody can ignore these days (for a limited time, anyhow) were some outliers from people of color. One woman actually wished white people would just shut up about racism. While everybody else is chanting that silence is violence and that we all have a duty to speak out, she went the other way. Then there was a man who spent most of his time complaining that the only reason white folks were finally speaking up was that they'd had a really rough week (of rioting) and were basically not in it for justice, but for their own comfort. Black people live like this all of the time, he said. Give you guys a week of the same stress levels and now all of the sudden people come out of the woodwork and want change.
That seemed a little unfair, given how many of us have been speaking out, at least since Ferguson. I don't normally do it in this space because this is supposed to be a musically blog on a musical website. But the normal boundaries just don't apply right now. We are in a liminal time when something might be accomplished if we have the guts to shine a really bright light on it, in the usual forums and everywhere else. And in the end, I'm glad this fellow didn't have anything good to say about white people. For one thing the bill is due from centuries of oppression, regardless of whatever good things we've managed to do lately, or lip service we've managed to throw at it. And for another, as "a concerned citizen" wrote from the future last week on this blog, the danger is always that this is just about our collective comfort, and as soon as that is accomplished, we'll go back to sleep without fixing our system. He kicked us white folk in the butt. Good. Keep kicking, sir.
In the mean time I am trying to do what I can to help with the greatest social problem of our time--of every time. Working to change the system, and in the meantime treating people like people. Black Lives Edition. If the article I just saw is any indication, there is really no way to get this right, but you have to keep trying. The article was about how triggering it is for people of color to see all of these white people so easily discussing race all of the sudden--a topic black people have had to treat very carefully in mixed company, for their very survival at times. If it helps her any, discussions about race among white people can often be very painful, and cost friends and family. But it has to be done.
Eventually, I'd like to get back to writing about music again. But in some ways I've never stopped writing about it, as much as it may seem otherwise. This website, after all, is called "pianonoise." One of the reasons for that is that noise is often considered a derisive term to a musician. But terms of abuse, rather than being deflected, can be owned by their addressees, and used as a badge of honor. In a few weeks my fellow yankees doodle and I will be observing our nation's birthday. The British thought they had found the perfect insult while we were at war. But we liked it and it stuck. So there, Lobsterbacks!
but noise can also refer to the unwelcome political and social commentary that has sometimes been part of the music here as well. Some people would rather ignore it and simply bask in sounds. That is an ignorant approach, however. Music never did exist in a vacuum. Those who would like to avoid controversy can only do it by ignoring the circumstances in which so much of their favorite art was created. If the art is old enough it may seem nothing but a vortex of pleasant sounds made for no other purpose but my own entertainment. But not if I'm paying attention to where it came from. For a start, I was probably not the intended audience. And if I had been alive then, I may not have been allowed to hear it. Likely it was only for the rich few. If prince Esterhaza could come back from the dead for a bow, would he demand thanks from us for being able to listen to the glorious music of his servant Haydn? The prince is, after all, a "symphony creator," isn't he?
There are also plenty of works of art whose message is inherently political. We may be able to ignore that from a distance, but then we miss a great deal of what made the art powerful in the first place. Try to imagine listening to Finlandia as a turn of the century Finn, trying to get out from under the thumb of Russia. Or hearing a Shostakovich symphony in Russia under Stalin during the Second World War. Or Gottschalk's "Union" in 1863.
Not every piece has that function. A Haydn piano sonata is basically an essay in notes, but even so, it comes out of a series of expectations and societal practices that locate it in a very different time and place. One hears it differently if you have some ideas about what was in the air at the time.
It feels as though we are living history this week. That is mostly because the present moment seems like a particularly significant time, one that will be remembered when much of the rest of this turbulence fades. We are always living history. As it roars by, it changes us, and our attitudes. Things that used to seem like they belonged only to the past are now part of the present. Words that seemed like exaggerations from a different time, or customs that couldn't exist now are back. So are some of the same debates. So are the same choices.
When I started this website some 18 years ago, I wanted to write about composers in a way that reminded us that they were human beings trying to exist in a distracted world. That their trials and disappointments, character flaws and temporary triumphs shaped who they were and the art they produced. Sometimes, despite my efforts, they may still be figures of history, from a time and place that is alien. At others, they leap off the page, and become real people again, restored in dignity and humility, bundles of anxiety and contingency all over again. Two things are needed to effect this: one is imagination and empathy, the other is an intuitive understanding of history. We are getting another sense of how the river is rushing by, and it informs all of us of their struggles as it teaches us about our own. This week the deep water runs fast.