Elvis Lives, Evil's Veils, Levis and Other Anagrams
"You're kidding yourself if you believe it when people say, `Oh, that's a political song,' " Mr. Costello said. "No. A political song is one that if you played it to Donald Rumsfeld, he would give up his career and enter a monastery. That would be a political song — one that affected him so deeply that he would renounce his view of the world. I don't think anybody alive is capable of writing that song. So all you're doing is writing things that matter to you."
That's ridiculous of course: If getting Donald Rumsfeld to resign voluntarily is the litmus test of what's political, then not only do political songs not exist, politics itself doesn't exist, unless by politics you mean an armed coup. But as I wrote this week, the idea that most protest songs are more self-expressive than actually political in affect and effect is dead-on.
Protest songs can transcend the self-expressive category temporarily when they're written or sung for an active movement, and can serve as rallying points and bonding material. But not under most conditions, which is why protest songs and "patriotism" songs a la Toby Keith belong to different semiotic orders: Keith knows what the subject-community he's singing for is, and they experience his song as an affirmation of their commonality, while most protest songs take a rebel stance and implicitly position themselves outside looking in, innocent not just of complicity but even commonality in social existence. (It's a rockist thing: You would't understand.) (The Sixties exception to this, I think if you look closer at the best of the music, isn't really an exception.) I found America the Beautiful especially interesting because in a way it's a protest song disguised as a patriotic song. (Not all that unlike Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land.)
Costello's right, though, that some sort of potentially transformative experience should at least be nosing around the edges of a properly political song - political speech is primarily persuasive, right? And I think (this goes back to the discussion in the column) that in art the best mode of persuasion is empathetic, to bring the audience through the experiences that shape the point of view rather than to argue the point of view. (Does arguing ever do anything ever?)
The irony of Mr. McManus's statement is that he's written and performed as many songs that deserve the name of real political song as just about anyone.
(Aside from Randy Newman, who's so exemplary that just mentioning him should illustrate what sort of writing I mean, eg. Rednecks, Sail Away, Christmas in Capetown: vicious satire never free of the soft, devastating discovery that even the most despicable character is human-all-too-human.)
In Costello's songbook, there are Shipbuilding, Less Than Zero, Brilliant Mistake, Beyond Belief, and many more, all with the kind of unstable centre that makes it possible to read them from several perspectives but impossible to ignore the klieg light they shine into the pervasive fog of corruption. Just as in his anti-romances, Costello sees everything and forgets nothing (including forgetfulness itself); forgiveness is both taken for granted and out of the question.
Even his most balls-out protest song, the anti-Thatcher Tramp the Dirt Down, is far more textured, polyvalent, prismatic than most, continually puzzling, "Can you imagine...?" and "Try telling that..." and "I never thought..."
Similarly in his most famous cover, What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding? - "Where are the strong? Who are the trusted?" - it's all questions, no answers, and the chorus is at once straight and sarcastic, at once defending the hippie slogan against punk scorn and drenching it in that scorn itself. Again, not exactly a protest song, but it sure functions that way whenever the news gets grim.
Not that there are no missteps: Pills and Soap for example is a fistful of ham, and it's not alone. In general though, the fact that Costello doesn't believe in political songs might be exactly why he's able to deliver them so well - he brings to them the workaday observational edge of a first-rate newspaper columnist, not the editorialist or activist's rancour, even when he is singing about dancing on the prime minister's grave, as if to say: Who cares what I think; this is how it sounds.