Not that is doesn’t always feel this way here, but right now seems to be a particularly striking time socially and culturally to be living in the United States. Riots, public tragedies, pandemics, political strife. These are signs of irritated, misunderstood people who not only feel used and extorted but also feel they have no place to go. Walled off at every turn. They aren’t wrong in feeling this way, it’s likely that they truly have no place to turn. Creatives throughout history who experienced this type of chaos used their frustration and discomfort to create, hoping to shed some angst. Some of the most ground-shaking, and relatable creativity came from this exact sort of social friction we see now. Shakespeare famously wrote some of his best work while under the stresses of being quarantined during the plague. Bob Dylan’s tear throughout the 60’s was a sight to behold. It takes real guts to be that young and that disagreeable towards a group of older people who “have it figured out”. There was N.W.A. N.W.A.’s anger was palpable, you could feel their energy in your nerve endings. There have been many artists like this throughout history, and there still are some today who are doing as good as job as anyone ever has. However it seems like the number of true risk takers in music and art is lower than ever as we are starting to see more and more of these creatives sell out for streams over.
N.W.A. with their attitude, Bob Dylan with his contrarian nature, I mean, this is exactly what these guys were going for. I don’t think they were intentionally trying to piss people off just for the sake of pissing people off, they simply did not care *at all* if some people didn’t like how they felt. It’s just the cost of doing business. Straight to the point, no tricks or ploys, just raw emotion. We certainly get a lot of gimmicks and manufactured emotion in most music today, it’s easy to sniff out once you’ve trained yourself to spot it.
On April 26, 1986 Guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Steven Morrissey of The Smith’s had their own experience that would end up changing not only how they viewed music but how they would write it too. The two were together listening to BBC Radio 1, when suddenly the music cut and a news report came over the airwaves describing the ongoing nuclear meltdown happening in Chernobyl at that very moment. A jarring listen. An event of such magnitude the consequences of it are still felt today. Immediately after this news had been shared the BBC music DJ shamelessly wasted no time, flipped the tunes right back on. The song that he chose to play after such horrible news was… “I’m Your Man” by pop sensation Wham! A dance song with not much to offer other than that. Given the circumstances this was a weak choice, but an all too predictable one that Marr and Morrissey thought was indicative of something bigger.
Marr recalls the sentiment he shared with Morrissey after they both had realized what it was the DJ just did after such traumatizing and horrific news: “I remember actually saying, ‘What the fuck does this got to do with people’s lives? We hear about Chernobyl, then, seconds later, we’re expected to jump around to ‘I’m Your Man’“.
Can we not properly grieve and ponder the fragility of life for even a moment? Or must we have the constant drumming of pop music? Is there nothing sacred?
Johnny Marr is spot on. Not only can we ask this question about music, but any sort of media we consume regularly. We should be able to depend on our artists and tastemakers to use their platform and talents to portray some kind of emotional light at the end of the tunnel. But nowadays it seems unusual to get this sort of support from them. What we get are tik-tok songs that are irrelevant in the blink of an eye, we get to watch global artists pathetically beg their fans to download VPN’s (!!!) so they can juice their streaming stats for the sole reason of being number one on the charts. In basketball this is referred to as empty stats, or stat padding – which is basically another form of rent-seeking. Admittedly, I can’t get enough of watching superstars do this, it’s pitiful, embarrassing, and so hilarious. Watching them plead with fans seems like an admittance of “I know the song I spent years making is inauthentic garbage but here it is anyway”.
But my personal favorite is this, nothing says “I don’t believe in my artistry” quite like it:
Is music just becoming a consensual prostitution ring? If you want to know if this strategy worked?…. Of course it did.
Let me ask, what I will now be dubbing, Marr’s Dilemma: What the fuck does this got to do with people’s lives? Is this representing what we are going through?
Morrissey, Johnny Marr and The Smith’s used this same frustration and sense of embarrassment to write their song “Panic”. This is a song that perfectly encapsulates what I think our country needs right now; meaningful music. With “Panic”, Morrissey expresses his worry about ever being able to recover from a panic that is sprawling all over the UK, singing: “I wonder to myself, Could life ever be sane again?”. The song then takes a sharp turn and holds nothing back: “Burn down the disco. Hang the blessed DJ. Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” It’s edgy, but that can be a good thing.
Most of our music today has nothing to do with people’s lives, but music is certainly not the only thing we constantly consume that has nothing to do with us. Marr’s Dilemma could help us weigh all aspects of our life in their proper way so one can take a true look at them and find out what exactly is worth acting on and what may be worth cutting out. Try not to misvalue (“mis-weigh”) life’s features and try to act appropriately on those aspects of life according to their weight. Weigh Appropriately and Act Accordingly.
Morrissey weighed the value of the music of his life, thought it was garbage, and acted accordingly.
Morrissey answered his version of Marr’s Dilemma with this song. (Truly great song by the way. I’ve been wandering my house all morning chanting “Hang the deeejjjaaayyyyy!”)
We could use this sentiment now. The sentiment of “this is how we feel and this is how serious we are” in our art. It’s felt in the protests, and tweets, but there is a certain spirit of a good song that other mediums just won’t accomplish. We are in desperate need of art that represents who we are and what we are going through. Not constant party anthems and chart toppers, we need songs that represent the lowlights of life that can inspire individual change and that can inspire us to get rid of the waste of our modern times.
If creatives who share a sincere message – NWA, Morrissey, Jimi Hendrix, others – knew one thing, it’s that once the message is delivered and heard, it will wake others up, which can then inspire worthwhile change. Once you inspire someone you can’t unring that bell. And ringing the bell with the knowledge it will never be unrung was their strategy the whole time.
When we find something in our life has nothing to do with our lives, maybe it’s time we metaphorically and hypothetically (*very hypothetically, not literally*) burn the disco’s of our lives. “Hang the DJ”. To me that’s what Morrissey, NWA, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Kendrick Lamar and others have done and it’s what we need more of.
Get rid of what you feel doesn’t matter. Replace it with something you see more pertinent to your real life.