My vision for 2020 would be for a bit more truth, beauty and justice to come to light. It’s getting harder and harder for working class people to make ends meet, all the while a circus of obscene over-consumption by the 1% of the 1% is shoved down our throats culturally. So why don’t ‘the people’ revolt? Well, there are lots of reasons …
Some of the reasons are cultural. Despite the supposedly liberating, equalizing effects of social media, representations of ‘the people’ in commercial media remain highly distorted in class terms. On TV and in movies it would appear that everyone’s rich and there’s nothing that can’t be solved with just a bit of celebrity charity (‘thanks Ellen!’). But as New Yorker Jeff Rosenstock bluntly puts it, “TV stars don’t care about who you are.” Rosenstock’s work ranges from straight up punkish rock to more dreamy melodic numbers with a dollop of shoegaze. “TV Stars” is from his 2018 album Post- and makes the point that ‘nice’ isn’t really equal to caring.
Of course, part of the reason people mistake nice celebrities for friends is that media seldom mirrors the great unwashed or their experiences in any recognizable form. The first step toward self-respect is recognizing who you are (and who you are not). And every now and then a tiny bit of authenticity breaks through. Like Scotland’s Gerry Cinnamon. He is a rare example of an unabashedly working class artist who has eschewed major labels and conventional music promotion. Movies and TV never tire of pushing the trope that any decent idea, if it’s worthy, can take off via social media, eluding the gate keepers and corporate media machines, but the reality is that a kitty appearing to dance and sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” is much more likely to succeed. But in Cinnamon’s case, the myth actually became real. He is an unsigned artist who plays sold out shows throughout the UK. I can’t help but feel that part of his appeal is that his songs give voice to the experience of an alienated working class youth in believable ways. The songs on Cinnamon’s 2017 Erratic Cinematic have the same gut impact of early Dylan, Jake Bugg, Springsteen when he’s got his harmonica out, and Ike Reilly. No one does heart-wrenching loneliness quite like Cinnamon on tracks like “What Have You Done” or check out the Morricone-esque quality of the title track, complete with haunting whistling. Cinnamon did release a single in 2019, a teaser from his coming 2020 album, entitled “The Bonny” – with pretty magical harmonica accompaniment.
Artists like Cinnamon make working class experience visible and that is crucially important because making such lives visible allows other people to realize that their problems are not merely personal (i.e. their own fault) but happening to all kinds of people all over the place. Of course, the next step politically would be to act on that knowledge. Here I want to harken back to the just reviewed new album Bulletproof from The Lolas and a few particular songs that really name the work to be done. Like “Storm of Silence,” where songwriter Tim Boykin sings “workers have so much to win” by breaking the ‘storm of silence’ because “there’s a million people standing strong and another million coming on.” Or the Steve Miller Band-ish “Stand Up and Fight,” where he asks “who is it going to be if not you or me?” because “you can call the local news and I bet they won’t care, but if you dare this might be the start of something big.” Boyko ends the album with the classic leftwing liberation anthem, “L’Internationale,” with its still relevant theme of international working class solidarity.
Seeing who your real friends are is partly cultural work but it is also affected by dramatic and ever increasing economic inequality that defines western countries. Make no mistake, a lot of money is spent by powerful people to keep the gauze over our eyes. Making the depravity and cruelty of that inequality more visible is also crucial to seeing a more progressive vision triumph in this new year. And it just happens to be good for music too!