Saturday, December 02, 2006

Plastic People of the Universe

Green Day is urging you to contact the president. They want to prevent Arctic oil drilling and they are promoting alternative energy sources. Who would have ever thought back in 1994 that this trio of (literal) punks would ever (literally) live up to their name?

Despite Green Day's activism, a lot of leftist political activists lament the lack of involvement that contemporary pop musicians have in pushing ideology. They long for a redux of the 60s when protest songs filled the charts.

I have even seen some criticism of Bob Dylan for not including any commentary about the Iraq War on his ironically named new album "Modern Times." Such criticism is hilarious in light of the fact that Dylan never even penned an overt protest against the Vietnam War. ("Masters of War" is often erroneously cited as one, but it came out before escalation in Vietnam and was likely about the Cuban Missile Crisis). I recently listened to a fascinating radio interview Dylan did on an alternative New York station in 1965. Dozens of people were able to call up and ask Dylan whatever they wanted. One caller pleaded with him to speak out against Vietnam. "People are dying," he literally whined. "People have always died in wars. Wars have been going on forever. There's nothing I can do about it," replied Dylan (I paraphrase from memory).

And Dylan was probably right. Popular music, not for lack of trying, didn't do anything about Vietnam in the 1960s. Popular music, not for lack of trying, really hasn't done much of anything to help society. Concerts have raised money and awareness, but how much of a cultural impact have they made? Willie Nelson said this year that he can't consider his Farm Aid concerts of the last 20 years a success, since there is still a need for them (incidentally, Dylan can be credited for the actual genesis of Farm Aid when he went off-script at Live Aid and said that some of the money being raised for starving third world people should go to American farmers).

But if musicians can be said to wield little influence, how much less can poets be regarded? Percy Shelley called them the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." He might have the first word right, but I'm not sure about anything after that. Much has been made this year about the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"...and by "much" I mean "not very much." Fifty years after bursting onto the poetry scene, a google search of Ginsberg's name yields a respectable 1.6 million hits...or about 29 million less than 25-year-old Paris Hilton garners.

Just imagine an alternative world where a poet and a rock band could spark the beginnings of a revolution. If it ever did happen, said poet and rock band would achieve worldwide notoriety, right?

Actually, no. If it did happen the poet would hardly ever be thought of in relation to the country he influenced and the rock band would have one video on youtube with less than 200 views. And I say this with absolute certainty because this is the actual recognition with which Allen Ginsberg and the Plastic People of the Universe enjoy for sparking a cultural revolution in Czechoslovakia in the 60s and into the 70s. Here is all you need to know to appreciate what should be appreciated:

Plastic People on Myspace
Plastic People on Wikipedia
Plastic People on Youtube

Why is the story of this heroic rock band not celebrated? Is it because the left is loathe to celebrate subversion of a leftist regime? Is it because of the relatively minor role of Czechoslovokia in world politics? Or is it for the same reason that Frank Zappa has sold fewer records than the Backstreet Boys? (what's wrong with a little atonal dissonace anyway?) A combination?

Whatever the case may be, here's a thought for Billy Joe and the boys in Green Day: how about adding a saxophone, violin, and string bass to the mix?


Blogger Boo said...

Hey Azor;
I have to leave a comment on this one, since it was posted on my birthday, it seems like fate. I have to disagree with the idea that "Popular music, not for lack of trying, really hasn't done much of anything to help society." Music often spotlights inadequecies in our society, bringing an awareness that was not there before. I remeber the first time I heard Elvis sing "In the Ghetto" and the ideas it conjured up about a way of life that was foreign to me. It gave me compassion for the poor at an early age. This led me to try to help in ways that I could, donating at different events all through the year. I know that my small donations don't do much, but all the people who hear the music, beating like a persuasive essay, may change the way they look or think about things. This, hopefully, will lead to good changes for all. I know I'm idealistic, but the government does bend towards the people's will. The problem is that once something is set in place that is supposed to help or fix a problem, the story goes out of the news and few keep up with it, leading to gross money mismanagement or underfunding of the cause. Don't know how we can fix it, just know that's too often life. Becky

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, i don't read long comments boo-head.

but, i believe that the war is a good thing. people die, yeah. people die everyday for more lowly things than for your country.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

"Don't know how we can fix it"

How about rock groups writing songs about it? :-)

10:08 AM  

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