Singing of Hard Times

Johnny Cash sang this one to an international hit.

Henry Rollins wonders about doing the same thing now.

Yeah, OK. So what does it mean to ride against the order we know?

War, does it not?


Anonymous said...

Patronizing envy is so ugly.


Cass said...

I am missing something here.

Cash is singing about being broke and feeling desperate. Nelson sings about putting instant gratification before long term progress (yes, that sounds like over intellectualizing but that's his take - after getting drunk and wasting his paycheck, he'll "wind up singin' the blues"). So is he better off or worse off?

I guess the question remains: what's the best moral course for a musician? To inspire people to make their lives better or commiserate with them where they are, even if where they are is headed down a dead end street?

And what is "the order we know"?

Grim said...

What Rollins is talking about is whether a country singer ought to be more like Woody Guthrie (who was a Communist, and devoted even his apparently patriotic songs to undermining the constitutional order). It's kind of an interesting question, really: if you are singing to those who suffer under the current economic and legal order, should you suggest ways they can accommodate themselves to it, or ways they can overturn it for one that might serve them better?

Toby Keith is doing the one, as in a way were Cash and Nelson. Guthrie was doing the other. Part of the answer has to do, I guess, with whether there's an alternative order that you think would really be an improvement: Guthrie believed in Communism, but no one sensible does today. So what advice do you really owe to your fans? Is it, as Rollins suggests, defeatist to just sing about ways in which they can find happiness a few hours a week in spite of their lot?

Cass said...

Honestly, I didn't get politics out of that, but these days all roads seem to lead there.

I can't help wondering if one of the worst consequences of dependence on government is that we now see pretty much everything - even suggestions that making money by presenting a self-destructive vision to people who are already suffering - is somehow political rather than a moral question?

Maybe what's wanted is not some external "order", but that each of us tries to do the right thing without worrying whether somehow that will come off as an implicit endorsement of the wrong side?

Cass said...

Is it, as Rollins suggests, defeatist to just sing about ways in which they can find happiness a few hours a week in spite of their lot?

There used to be a term for seeking temporary happiness at the expense of long term progress. It wasn't a flattering one.

I saw this whole thing as a question of whether it's better to pander to even completely irrational behavior if doing so makes you money or makes people like you? Or whether we have some larger responsibility to stand for what's right in life (even if that makes people feel bad about themselves, as we all know that feeling bad is the worst of all fates - even worse than blowing your paycheck on things you can't afford or going into debt or whatever temporarily fills the void.).

It's no secret that pandering pays, and since we live in a free society, the whole "You're awesome just the way you are" mantra can be immensely profitable. Rollins didn't ask if Keith should be *allowed* to pander, but whether he really believes that is best for his fans?

Sounds like a good question to me, wherever one happens to come down on it.

Grim said...

I take it to be a good question. I wonder if there is a good answer.

Cass said...

If you know it, my friend, then you are a far wiser person than I :)

Rollins' letter just made me think of a question that has often bothered me.

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who set very good examples for me. When I was younger, I didn't fully appreciate the immense advantage this gives a person. When things go wrong, we often go on autopilot, and that's when we drift in whatever direction exerts the most pull on us.

Childhood memories and family culture exert an enormous pull on all of us, and that pull can prod us to respond in positive ways that make things better or lure us into doing counterproductive things that make things worse.

The thing is, we all (or most of us at least) feel some allegiance to the people we grew up with. We'll defend them and defend their deeds, even when sometimes a more detached assessment might be, "Gee, it really wasn't all that helpful for Uncle Bob to go out and get drunk when his wife asked him to go to counseling" or, "Hmm... maybe continuing to hang out with those friends wasn't the best choice if so-and-so really meant to put more into her marriage...".

That was really the sense I got from Rollins' letter - it's the same one that led me away from a fairly liberal world view I had as a girl. It was the sense that, while sympathy and commiseration and understanding are the most natural response in the world to hard times, sometimes it's not helpful. Sometimes, part of a person's troubles are attributable to bad decisions. So if you love them and want things to be better in the future, do you excuse or commiserate with those bad decisions?

Or do you try to love/understand the person without supporting all of their decisions? People who are down on their luck are especially vulnerable, so I can easily see how either approach might backfire.

Speaking only for myself, if I were in that position, I'd want the truth ("You know, you're really not helping yourself"), even if I wasn't ready to hear it yet. I wouldn't want my mistakes glorified or admired. But I'll admit that would be very hard to hear.

Cass said...

So, again, what is "the order we know" and why would we go to war with it?

Grim said...

The order we know is the order that leaves some -- "the blue of collar, the red of neck" -- predictably behind. It's the order that produces what we normally hear referred to as "inequality."

The problem Rollins is talking about is not that an individual person isn't doing as well as he or she could be. It's "making a good living off the fact that a lot of people don't." It's not about you getting more out of life personally, but about making it so that millions don't have to be 'soulless cogs in the wheel.' It's defeatest because it accepts that, for some very large number of people, membership in this class of workers is as good as it gets.

That's where Guthrie's mind was: changing the system for one he (however wrongly) believed would let the proletariat stop being alienated from their species being, and instead find a new sort of dignity in work. It's the old ideal; but it requires revolutionary change.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that it's possible to have the revolution but it's no longer reasonable to believe in it. The system we have may be as good as it gets, at least for now; and it may reliably produce inequality as a necessary feature. Being a cog in the wheel is still better than being unemployed, which more and more seems to be the real danger -- at least the cogs get by.

Cass said...

Does "the system" produce inequality?

Or do the choices individuals make (combined with their natural talents, family background, expectations and goals, etc) naturally lead to inequality?

And is that really a bad thing? What is the point of choices, if they all lead to the same end point?

Cass said...

Case in point: the members of my family all came from the same basic background. But they didn't all end up in the same place because they made very different choices and different consequences flowed from those choices.

Is this bad? Is it "the system"?

Or is it just freedom?

Grim said...

You can make better choices and end up in a better place (maybe -- of course, there are no guarantees about that). But even if you do, somebody is going to be lower down on the rung. The system orders some people into low-paying "cog" jobs (and, increasingly, many millions into no jobs at all).

In a way I'm sympathetic to Rollins' suggestion that songs targeting those at the bottom shouldn't just be about helping them feel good about being there. Maybe you're right that the best that can be done is to suggest ways that they personally could do better -- a better way to compete with their fellows, so that at least some of them could rise to a higher station.

douglas said...

Yes, he's half right- it would be better to help them somehow, but then- what's wrong with feeling a little better right now? Is that some kind of permanent sentencing to a 'meaningless life as a cog'? Is being a cook in a restaurant really that unrewarding (as the video suggests, at least in combination with the letter)? I'd suggest to Mr. Rollins that it would also be better to not suggest that having one of those jobs should be thought of as some sort of life sentence to hard labor, especially since most people in those jobs do not in fact stay in them- they move up, at least a little. Also, are not the cogs necessary to the running of the machine of society?

Grim said...

There's no permanent sentence to life as a cog. Death takes you elsewhere, sooner or later, even if nothing else does.

And death at the end of a life spent doing your duty, to help your family? I don't know, but I suspect, such a death has its rewards.

Tom said...

Rollins is one of those New Puritans for whom any kind of fun or escape is sin which must be shamed and purged.

There's a place for music that urges us to change the world, and a place for music when what we really need is a good bit of rollicking fun.

Imagine a world in which every song had deep meaning and urged us to revolution -- how boring.

Rollins, as a true Neo-Puritan, takes this much too seriously. Just because I listen to Toby's drinking songs doesn't mean I will emulate it in my life; Toby doesn't pretend to be serious in most of his work, so I don't take him seriously. I just listen, sing along, and have fun. While I have a real life.