Friday, December 2, 2016

Just shut up and sing, for God's sake

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, November 30.)

Back in the 1990s I attended a rock concert on the Wellington waterfront. The headline act was Carlos Santana, who had burst onto the scene in 1970 with a string of hits that included Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman and Oyo Como Va.

Those records still sound good today. Santana fused Latin and African rhythms with West Coast acid rock, a heady mix that made his early album Abraxas a best-seller. He was a guitar god too, producing arresting solos in a tone that was uniquely his.

Alas, Santana turned out to be a one-trick pony. His Wellington concert revealed a limited repertoire that ran the full gamut from A to B, to borrow a line from Dorothy Parker. The support act, George Thorogood and the Destroyers – exponents of honest, straight-ahead, no-nonsense boogie – were much more entertaining.

I could, at a stretch, have excused Santana for being predictable, but what was unforgiveable about that night’s performance was the frequent verbal interludes in which he insisted on sharing his philosophy, for want of a better word, with his audience. His droning, meandering homilies were even more monotonous than the music.

Santana gave the impression of suffering from some sort of Dalai Lama complex. Perhaps he thought we’d all paid good money to hear his half-baked, New Age theories on how to expand our cosmic consciousness.

Well I hadn’t, and I bet most of the other people there hadn’t either. But being polite New Zealanders, we suffered in silence.

Not for the first time, I wondered about the peculiar conceit that makes rock musicians – and some actors too – imagine that we look to them for inspiration on matters of politics, religion and philosophy.

They are probably encouraged in this delusion by adoring music critics who read profound meaning and insight into even the most banal song lyrics. Bob Dylan, who almost single-handedly intellectualised rock music, has a lot to answer for – although to give him his due, to my knowledge Dylan has generally avoided the trap of delivering sermons to his fans. On the one occasion that I saw him in concert he barely spoke at all.

Some other rock stars, regrettably, seem convinced that the world is vitally interested in their views on political issues; that we lack the gumption to think for ourselves and must wait for their guidance. Step right up, Bono – a man whose name has become synonymous with pompous sanctimony.

John Lennon was another who made the mistake of thinking that being a pop star conferred some sort of moral authority on him. Lennon became a bore from the moment he began using his music to deliver lectures about peace and love.

What made it worse was the sheer hypocrisy. Like many of his ilk, Lennon found it easier to sing about love – as in his puerile hit Imagine – than to demonstrate it in his personal life.

In her 2005 book John, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, portrayed the former Beatle as cruel and indifferent to her and their son Julian.   She recalled Julian saying: “Dad’s always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn’t love me?”

The truth, of course, is that most rock and pop musicians are not moral exemplars. Neither do they have any more political or spiritual insight than you or I. But their celebrity status deludes them – and many of their gullible, star-struck fans – into thinking they’re oracles. The media are complicit in this, reporting celebrities’ political views as if they carry special weight.

Politicians have become adept at turning this to their advantage. Just look at the way Hillary Clinton co-opted Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Madonna and others in her unsuccessful bid for the White House.

These stars exploit their appeal as singers and musicians in an attempt to exercise influence in a totally unrelated field. This is a misuse of their power, and I lose respect both for the stars and the politicians who indulge in it.

The absurdity becomes evident when you imagine the roles being reversed. Would Springsteen invite Clinton to sing with him? I doubt it. To put it another way, Springsteen has about as much credibility as a political commentator as Clinton would have as a vocalist.

We sometimes see the same thing happening here, albeit on a much more modest scale. The actor Sam Neill and the musicians Don McGlashan and Chris Knox have all thrown their weight behind the Labour Party in past election campaigns.

Usually it’s the left of the political spectrum that benefits (if that’s the right word) from such celebrity endorsements, but there are exceptions. The psychologically unstable rapper Kanye West recently announced during a concert that he would have voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election, had he bothered to vote at all.

For this he was booed, as he deserved to be – not because he supported Trump, but because he assumed his fans were interested in his politics.

In hindsight, we should have booed the tedious Carlos Santana too.


Mr Smith said...

You missed an awesome opportunity to include Lizzy Marvelly. I read the whole article hoping the headline was actually about her.

Karl du Fresne said...

Sorry to disappoint you, Mr Smith.

JC said...

These celebs maybe act as a useful foil for the Dem candidate.. they get to establish the Dem's credentials as "one of the people" as the celeb Fs and blinds and uses the N word and calls women Hos.

And throughout all the capering, language and insults the candidate gets to show as smiling, tolerant and subliminally.. superior.. he or she will be the one to protect minorities and most important.. will be no threat to the way of life being depicted on the stage.

I might say its awful but then I'm not the target market, and there will be other strategies designed for me because modern politics is about deconstructing society into smaller and smaller segments of bias and selfishness and developing policies to appeal to those often less worthy parts of ourselves.


Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl

I have been to three Santana concerts, one in the early 1970’s when he toured New Zealand, one in the USA when I happened to be there on business, and another more recently here in NZ. Interestingly the first one in the early 70’s was formative in my own spiritual journey. At one point during a drum solo Santana pointed to the drummer and said something to the effect ‘This is inspired by God’.

Somehow I sensed it wasn’t.

I have observed several times since then that something that you intuit is not true sometimes helps to push you towards the truth.

So yes, I have also endured his new age lectures and found them equally tedious, but when he is ‘on song’ and his backing musicians are playing ‘as one’ his live performances are some of the best you will see anywhere in the world.

Vaughan said...

"Imagine" a puerile hit?

It is one of the 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century. Rolling Stone magazine, not renowned as a purveyor of musical pap, put it as number three in the list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

The odds are that most who have heard the song do not agree with the puerile tag.

Songwriters and poets often do not live up to the lyrics that are a result of their creativity, preachers often do not live up to the high standards of the teachings they speak about, philosophers often don't follow up in their lives all the conclusions of their deep thinking.

That does not mean that the creations of the songwriters and the poets, the teachings of the divine or the conclusions of the philosophers should not have been expressed, should not be held up as high standards to aim at, or as beauty in and of itself.

Rather, I suggest, we should rejoice that the great artists, theologians and philosophers amongst us have presented us with thought-provoking and inspiring ideas.

It is only natural that people interested in them would want to hear more, and that is why I think it is fine if singers and others say what they think to those who ask, or to those who come along to their shows. All in moderation of course. I suspect most Dylan fans would want to hear more at his shows, but respect his right to silence.

Back to "Imagine". OK, we need not agree with all the lyrics. But can anybody really quarrel with a vision in words of what millions around the world rightfully yearn for -- a world at peace, a human family that is not torn apart by divisions of religion and nationality?

Johno said...

The hypocrisy is of course, breathtaking, as these multimillionaire celebs lecture us on the evils of inequality.

But even worse are the AGW types such as Leonardo Di Caprio, ushering us back into the cave while travelling to AGW talk-fests in a private jet and entertaining his guests on a mega-yacht.

Here at home we get to be bored to death by the preaching of such scientifically or financially trained experts as Lucy Lawless, Robyn Malcolm, Taika Waititi and now Hayley Holt. Happy days!

Unknown said...

The type that is unfluenced by these air heads is generally the type to uncritically support loopy leftwing parties anyway, so no great loss. Shouldn't forget the "virtue signalling " syndrome, and the Social Media hate and labelling if one doesn't support Liberal causes...

Marty Silva said...

Conceit knows few limits. But that said, the truly great artists - of which there are few- are great because they do bring deep insight into the human condition. As a consequence, what they say, should they choose to say it, is worth listening to. Dylan, to his credit, has long said he is just a musician and he finds it absurd that anyone would ever think he'd have answers to anything. Though he did once say "If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I might think Bob Dylan had some answers too." As for Imagine, John Lennon with all his properties and Rolls-Royces singing "imagine no possessions" was bullshit of the highest order.