Seeing beautifully brindled Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips in the flesh this November was something of a personal ambition achieved. A gig in a large venue often has something of the theatrical about it, and this particular performance did not disappoint. The atmosphere owed more to the carnival, with a Bacchanalian mixture of sight, sound, taste (albeit with an expensive bar) and naked women adorning the overhead screens. In fact, nakedness and eating appeared to be the leitmotifs of the performance, frequently mingled on the overhead projectors in high-speed videoclips of breasts and cake, in a frenzy that wouldn’t have been out of place among the Maenads.
But for all the anarchic fun, there was a somewhat jarring, more ‘serious’ note to the concert, as interspersing the songs Coyne indulged in a little flippant Bush-bashing. I find it striking that the current climate appears to compel every American band I see to deride US foreign policy, with a loud vitriolic derrogation of George W as an entrée to their performance. For what it’s worth, Fischerspooner did it particularly well on their last tour before introducing We Need A War, but with the Lips it felt more of a coincidental intro to their latest blockbuster single The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.
There is a certain irony to such statements too, quite apart from the fact that it shouldn’t be taken for granted that 8,000 Hammersmith concert-goers share the Lips’ views. Ironically, while many Londoners might oppose some ‘traditional’ conservative American values, and more pertintently, policies such as the war on terror and the death penalty, it is American cultural hegemony, arguably part of the Bush struggle for ‘Hearts and Minds’ that is in some ways responsible for the Lips’ large fan base in the UK. Of course, most bands have political sympathies, and Coyne has raised these in many an interview. But the compulsion to stir some cheap empathy with the audience seemed to strike a dischordant note with the sensual abandonment (balloons, a choir of Father Christmasses, confetti, bells) of the rest of the concert. When the rest of the chat from on-stage barely rises above announcing the next song, one wonders whether things have come to such a pretty pass with global tensions, or whether Bush-bashing is just a sure-fire cheer-raiser.
And then I started to wonder how British bands are in foreign lands, and whether Blur ended up apologising for Blair. I tend to feel as if bashing one’s country is fair game among friends and even compatriots, but - as I would with an irritating sibling - am more reticent about sharing such views with strangers. These thoughts aside though, perhaps there is a broader question about what it is to be an artist and a representative of one’s country abroad; or even to be a musician and an American in the current global climate. Mixing music and politics is, of course, a far from original past-time. Dylan certainly liked to think he was blazing a trail, and musical movements from hip-hop and grunge to folk (I’m thinking here of the Dixie Chicks) have all railed against the US establishment. In today’s ‘independent’ music though, there seems to be a different reaction. It springs perhaps out of the desire to pinpoint a sense of belonging to a specific place and not an impersonal and malevolent superpower, but I have noticed that there seems to be a more than usually referentiality in the albums I listen to at the moment. In many songs there is a sense of being grounded in, or originating from, specific, geographic places. Here I am thinking of songs by The National, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Interpol, Tapes N Tapes, The Postal Service, TV On The Radio and Sufjan Stevens. Whether it be the ‘Far, far away from West Virginia. I try new York City’ of CYHSY! , the New York scene that Interpol evoke (in the footsteps of The Strokes), or the Houston origins of Tapes 'n Tapes, place names are frequently referenced in their musical output, in a way fewer British indie bands seem compelled to do. Perhaps summing up the need for such musical anchoring, The National’s poignant ‘No I wouldn’t go out alone into America’ strikes a note of sadness that is hard to forget.
As well as the difficulty of finding an artistic identity in such a vast continent, one also gets the sense of seeking solace in the particular, when the broader picture is unpalatable. Walt Whitman’s reluctance to embrace the American identity was tinged with horror at slavery and the bloody Civil War; perhaps many contemporary artists feel similarly about the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Yet Whitman saw in his writing a mission to forge a new Bible for everyday Americans; the goal of Leaves of Grass was to project an optimistic and democratic future for the country. One parallel that springs immediately to mind today is the work of Sufjan Stevens: the albums Michigan (2003) and Illinois (2005), and his stated aim to create one for all 50 states, has echoes of Edison’s and Whitman’s oeuvre. In these albums, odes to cities such as Chicago and Jacksonville sit amongst plenty of other referential material. Perhaps not so coincidentally, in the case of both Whitman and Stevens, their faith in God is a strong driving force.
Stevens is also, interestingly, involved in a more overt music-politics fusion project. Created just three years ago, Music for America uses music as a springboard to get young people talking about political and community issues, and also voting and engaging in public policy formation. It is an organisation which claims to hgave registered 35 000 new young voters since 2003, hosts a vibrant online discussion forum about issues from ‘gas guzzling’ to dating, and holds free concerts almost daily, with the involvement of Stevens, and among others Blackalicious, Cut Chemist, RJD2, Death Cab for Cutie and Sleater-Kinney. With a dedicated mission to make politics ‘cool’, and permeate the lingua franca of the street, one wonders how much the two really coincide. But maybe that’s the point. Music is music, and politics is generally conducted in sober prose, without a synth backing. I wouldn’t go as far as the ‘art for art’s sake’ argument, but watching a performance of Brecht can be somewhat draining, whereas a concert is an immersion of the senses, and possibly one to which the intellect shouldn’t even be invited. Musical belonging, and political engagement, all have their place, and songs are often a good place to explore ideas. It’s just that sometimes, when you’re standing amid rampant synaesthesia in the Hammersmith Apollo, the disjuncture is a little jarring.