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Pop Politics With Billy Bragg

In the vacuum of a post-ideological world, the battleground of identity is being waged across the globe, from Europe to the American Activist Left. Recognizing the necessity to address identity, Billy Bragg's latest record, England: Half-English blasts those who would dress up xenophobic and racist rhetoric in the guise national identity. The same weekend Jean Marie Le-Pen lost the French Presidential election, Billy Bragg raps with George Sanchez in San Francisco about the power inherent in the audience and the use of mixing pop and politics.

by George B. Sanchez

July.2nd.2002

"My job is to reflect the world I see around me. There's no point in writing purely ideological songs in a time of no ideology," says Billy Bragg, sitting beneath the stage of San Francisco's Warfield Theatre.

The Bard of Barking's contention is a heavy one. Ideologies just don't die. However, truth rings within his statement. Maybe the time of ideology has past. The current generation of American teens and 20-somethings grew up without the red threat looming in the distance. Communism has been relegated to the pages of history for many. Then again, democracy seems most comprehensible in the marketplace rather than politics. The outcome of the last presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court, not popular vote. And Recently an Italian government minister remarked that Europe's postwar stability lies largely on the fact that ideology has been replaced by consumerism.

"I think firstly, we're in a post-ideological period. They may come back again, different ideologies, but we're definitely in a post-Marxist period and the language of Marxism doesn't offer us a language in which for us to talk to people anymore," says Bragg.

Only a few shows away from completing the American leg of the England: Half-English tour, Billy Bragg is at a remarkable moment in his career. A punk turned folkie who first came into the spotlight with forthright homages to labor ("There is a Power in a Union" and "Which Side Are you On") and painfully honest ballads ("A New England" and "The Saturday Boy"), Bragg's lyrical and musical approach has grown significantly. Moving past the "Have guitar; will travel" troubadour niche, Bragg has toured with his backing band, The Blokes, for the last few years: consistently collaborating on new material and the rearrangement of old songs. As signaled with the 1996 William Bloke, Bragg has also become issue oriented rather than ideologically driven. Key to Bragg's growth is the 1998 collaboration with alt-country heroes Wilco on the twice Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue recordings of previously unreleased Woody Guthrie material. Most importantly, though, the world that Bragg confronted through his music in the early '80s is not the one he faces today.

Without casting the blame on consumerism and the threat of global capitalism, Billy Bragg argues that the demise of ideology lies in the inability to clearly communicate with everyday folk.

"If you say to someone, ‘What kind of society do you want to live in?' and you say to them ‘I want to live in a compassionate society,' people understand that; everyday people understand that," says Bragg. "If you say ‘I want to live in a socialist society,' what does that mean? You have to have another five paragraphs or footnotes. And if you need that, then your language is fucked. If you can't speak in the language of compassion, or what we refer to at the gig as socialism of the heart, then you need to be out looking at new ways of articulating it."

The connection between Billy Bragg's musical growth, re-evaluation of politics, and last four records is the clear attempt to understand the concept of identity. The liner notes to England: Half-English read "The Mermaid Avenue sessions have taught me a lot about the joys of collaboration, about writing and playing songs with other people. With this album I have tried to carry that spirit on." Spirit cannot be carried on; it inhibits you and the search for identity that may have begun for Billy Bragg with "Which Side Are You On," became an unavoidable personal issue when he rediscovered Woody Guthrie for Mermaid Avenue.

"Well you know, the new album is about -- it's called England: Half English -- it's about identity. I think that the events of September 11th had us all pause for thought. But I think what happened since September 11th has given a lot of people real concerns and the passing of the Patriot Act, I think really causes a problem," says Bragg. "Where is it written down what it means to be American? Where is it in statute that ‘You are an American if you do this?' I think if you really went into law and said, ‘What does being American mean?' The first paragraph, I'm sure, would say something about freedom of speech, the right to freedom of expression, the right to dissent. You see those guys have no idea what patriotism is. I'm just sorry Woody isn't around because if anyone knew what it meant to be an American patriot, Woody Guthrie knew."

While Bragg doubts John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld's concept of what it is to be American, Europe is beginning to question what national identity means in an unprecedented era of immigration and the attempt to hold onto centuries-old homogenous notions of culture.

The same weekend that Billy Bragg and The Blokes finished their tour of the United States, France came together at the voting polls by a remarkable 82 percent in support of Jacques Chirac in offense against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yet, what is remarkable about the re-election of French President Chirac is not that the people of France rallied against a fascist (as many commentators so quickly remarked), but that less than two weeks earlier, 4.8 million people voted for Le Pen, a man who has called the holocaust a "detail of history," openly condemns France's membership in the European Union, and appealed to voters on the notion of "La France." What is "La France?" It is a jingoistic appeal to those struggling for national identity in light of global capitalism and in the vacuum of a post-ideological world.

"I mean, that's what all this England: Half-English stuff is about. It's about making an identity about where you are, rather than where you're from," says Bragg.

The spirit of "La France" is in no way exclusive to France. It's spirit is key to the rise of the Lijist Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch party formed by the late Pim Fortuyn, a sociologist whose anti-immigrant policies gained popular support in the Netherlands. The spirit of "La France" is part of the appeal of Austria's Joerg Haider. Each man's take on race and immigration in relation to national identity has made their platform appealing and accessible to those feeling disenfranchised from their beloved "homeland." The latest spectre to haunt Europe, "La France" is an attempt to create a new national identity capitalizing on the fears and frustrations of those left to fend for themselves in the wake of a free market economy that thrives largely on cheap, expendable pools of labor, often that of immigrants. It is one reaction to question of identity posed on England: Half-English.

The United States is facing the same dilemma. As Bragg points out, September 11th has forced America to reevaluate itself. Sadly, the superficial understanding of the United States as a member of a larger community has re-enforced Bush's isolationist and uncompromising stance; "You're either with us or against us."

And so the American Left, too, is fighting to rejuvenate itself as a viable political and social group in opposition to the Bush administration's worldwide witchunt without alienating the average American. Interestingly, possibly in reaction to the mainstream media's cable-fed image of the current wave of activism as the malevolent, black clad activists cum looter, the incorporation of nonviolent acts of civil disobedience has become more common.

"Well the anti-globalization movement is not just anarchists who want to destroy everything," says Bragg. "The truth is, you can't change the world by smashing up branches of McDonalds. If you want to change the world, go organize a labor union in McDonalds. That'll change the world. So, we need to remind people of that perspective, that it's a long haul. It's not something that's just going to happen overnight and then move on to something else."

"But the anti-globalization movement, to me, doesn't have the hallmarks of a classical ideological campaign. But that doesn't matter to me," continues Bragg. "When I look at the anti-globalization movement, I see there are a bunch of people who've made the choice that they don't want to live in a society based purely on exploitation. I think that's a very, very important choice to make and that's good enough for me to get on with. If that's where they are at, I think that's a good starting place."

Amid this discussion of activism and identity, a verse from Billy Bragg's "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" comes to mind: "Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses..."

Bruce Springsteen is quoted in John D. Luerssen's recent collection of rock 'n' roll quotes, Mouthing Off, stating: "I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. I've also got to feel like, well, it's only rock & roll. Somehow you've got to believe both of those things"

It is only rock 'n' roll. In spite of Live Aid, hunger and poverty still exist in Africa. Despite Time's cover story, Bono will not be able to save the world. Anyone convinced that rock 'n' roll and pop music can do otherwise need only look at the portrait of Richard M. Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley as part of a late '70s anti-drug campaign. But who said rock 'n' roll could save the world anyway? Such a notion only misguides the responsible parties. The question then stands -- has Billy Bragg figured out the use of mixing pop and politics?

"I'm not there on the street of Seattle; I'm here doing gigs and stuff. I'm trying to reflect that when I write a song like NPWA -- No Power Without Accountability. I'm just trying to reflect what I see is going on. You know, singer/songwriters are not here to be leaders; we're not even here to give answers," says Bragg. "I mean, I'm here to ask the right question at the right time. That's my gig, that's my role."

Realistic about pop music's role in shaping society, Bragg is thankfully reluctant to play the martyr. Rightfully so, the most a musician should hope to accomplish is change a few minds, which is what happened to Billy Bragg in 1978 at the historic Rock Against Racism concert in England. Credited as the first political event Bragg took part in, the event was a catalyst in politicizing punk as well as Bragg. And in this example lies proof that popular music, though indirect, can lead to something better.

"My thing is this: politics can't change the world, only the audience can change the world. That's the truth and I would never suggest to an audience anything other than that," says Bragg. "I'm always trying to reflect that, the responsibility back onto them. But what politics can do is change your perspective on the world and that's what it did to me."

The balance toward an effective mix of pop and politics is a delicate one. Seldom can a song create a movement. Rather, song and popular music add layers of cultural significance to a movement, or event, which may indeed shape the world to come. As the song is just another manner in which to question aloud what's going on, it should be taken as another voice and nothing more.

"You need to be talking to things that are on people's agenda already and drawing their attention and making connections for them and giving them a different perspective for something that they have an awareness of," says Billy Bragg. "You can't jut constantly keep dismissing people because they're not aware enough. It's tough. You got to try and raise the banner for political music, but you need those events."

"Obviously September 11th is an event that everyone has an opinion about. My question is ‘Will the next generation of singer/songwriters -- the David Grays, the Badly Drawn Boys -- these new songwriters that have come through, will they respond to the events of September 11th on their next record?'" Bragg wonders aloud. "Even if it's just the emotional waves that come out. It doesn't have to be the political, just the emotional sense -- the gut feeling, the emotion of watching those pictures unfold -- will they try to articulate that or will they carry on internalizing those kinds of things and just gaze at their own navels. You know, I don't want to dismiss anybody, but I do want to see singer/songwriters trying to get to grips with the world, outside of their belly button, you know what I mean. Otherwise, it's all fluff, if you get my drift."

But the politics of pop are much more sophisticated than mere fluff. The politics of complacency, consumerism, and instant gratification all conspire to the dance of normalcy, giving popular culture more influence than is evident. A problem hardly limited to Europe, the struggle for identity is caused in part by a political and media system afraid to discuss the complexity of issues such as race, identity, and immigration. When men like Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen address such topics, their wide appeal points not to a rise of the right, but to the failure of others to confront matters that warrant discussion and debate. When the American Left begins to move past its lionization of the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle, a new identity might again be forged. While pop musicians like Billy Bragg are far from finding the solution to these questions of identity, the questions they pose are none the less important.

"I don't think all music should be political, don't get me wrong, how boring would that be. There's lots of music I like that ain't political, but, having said that, there's got to be room for music with an agenda," says Billy Bragg.

Martin Espada writes in the forward of the Curbstone Press collection Poetry Like Bread, that vision and language necessitate effective political poetry. "Any progressive social change must be imagined first, and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression to move from vision to reality. Any oppressive social condition, before it can change, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus the need for political imagination." If anything, Billy Bragg is just that, a man with a wild imagination, one that has dreamt up "A New England," unearthed the figurative bones of Woody Guthrie and brought him back to life, and recognized that the dilemma of identity is one that must be addressed with honesty and inclusivity. In another ten years, the world will be different than the one Bill Bragg confronts with England: Half-English, but the imagination and courage of pop musicians, like himself, who choose to sing with meaning about the world around them will continue to stir, awake, and serenade the audiences who will in turn say no to the WTOs, no to the Le Pens, and no to the wars.




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