Pop is going nuts

Fanatics, populists, egotists and conspiracy theorists have highjacked the headlines. Not just in politics and society at large, but also in the field of music. I’d like to train a critical spotlight on the United States, the country of pop, where anxious bands are hastily changing their name and the debate on racism is having some bizarre outcomes. Where a rap-idiot wants to become president and even the superstars aren’t what they used to be.

Weimar/Germany, in August of 2019: An art event featuring copious amounts of toilet paper accuses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of being a sexist. The objections center around the 18th century poet’s macho image of women and on his distasteful poem about the “Heidenröslein”. The small attack on Goethe’s garden house goes largely unnoticed in Germany and when it does attract attention, tends to be laughed off. As it happens, this prank is nothing compared to what will happen thousands of miles away just a few months later. After the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was stopped by police in Minneapolis and killed after a policeman violently pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, various historical figures, mainly in the US, Belgium and the UK, are knocked off their pedestals, in the literal sense of the word. “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators attack statues of colonial rulers and of politicians responsible for the oppression of people of color, defacing them, beheading them, or dumping them into rivers. Columbus and Churchill, even the most famous names aren’t spared. These are violent symbolic acts directed against state power and oppression – which want us to forget shameful periods of history.

Tear down the Colosseum. Cancel the Reformation…

The rage is totally understandable. But many people who aren’t participating in this kind of toppling of monuments are inevitably asking themselves where this is bound to lead – what comes next? In the context of the Goethe dispute in 2019, Thomas Wischnewski speculated that “For example, one day Otto Hahn will be condemned for nuclear research and Gottlieb Daimler will be knocked off his pedestal as an enabler of climate change.” Wischnewski is the author of the online portal ‘magdeburg-kompakt.de’ and talks about dangerous attempts to erase history. He warns: “Retroactively condemning the zeitgeist of a period in history smacks of fascism. (…) Those who reinterpret their own history and try to cast it off, lose the ability to deal with it in a responsible way.” The fears that he voiced then can easily be amended today: The Reformation will be cancelled because Martin Luther wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the 16th century. Antique statues and sites, triumphal arches, the Colosseum will be torn down – as disgraceful monuments to empires and conquerors who laid waste to continents and enslaved and slaughtered other human beings – or had them slaughtered. Masterpieces from the “Brücke” will be banned from museums since, when it comes to the painters, suspicions of pedophilia continue to crop up. And finally, the books of Karl May will be burned since his body of work is also marked by racist, colonialist thinking.

Two truisms say: People are full of contradictions, with good sides, but also with moral abysses and hidden depths. And: People are shaped by the era, the culture, and the norms in which they move, they can’t help it. The boundaries between “perfect” and “monstrous” are always fluid. Only the absolutely monstrous is clearly defined and socially ostracized – but before this stage is reached, there are countless shades of gray which we all have to deal with. Many people who have done great things have also done reprehensible things, especially from a historical perspective. Usually it is wiser to engage with the darker aspects of life, to draw conclusions from them, and to look for ways to address past injustices whenever possible. This is what happened with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which dealt with crimes from the apartheid era, with Germany’s collective reckoning with the Nazi era, and with the Protestant Church’s critical reflection on the anti-Semitic passages in Martin Luther’s work. When, in the run-up to the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, a Protestant pastor and the church commissioner for Judaism symbolically blindfold a statue of Luther in Hanover/Germany, when even representatives of the Jewish community, despite their well-deserved criticism, can find positives in Luther’s revolutionary impulse and his successful translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew, then much has already been gained in terms of a joint reappraisal of history.

Are we still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio? This question was also hotly discussed recently, in light of the ongoing posthumous abuse accusations against the superstar. Daily life has already answered this question: Yes, you are still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio, and yes, you are also allowed to listen to him. Because his music in no way constitutes a crime, because it has given and still gives a lot to countless fans – and because ultimately, boycotting his songs would also unjustly punish all the people who contributed to Jackson’s art, e.g. musicians and producers. At the same time we need to be able to remind people about the transgressions of the “King of Pop”. Which is also why I think it would be absurd to take films with the exceptional actor Kevin Spacey, who was banned for sexual assault, out of circulation.   

The past is as complicated as the present

People who, along with the questionable aspects of an oeuvre or era, simultaneously want to erase the entire oeuvre and/or era from the collective memory, are disowning themselves and may, in a hundred years, be erased from memory themselves, when people in other contexts re-evaluate them. In some cases, there have already been immediate retaliations: For example, in response to the attacks on statues of white colonialists, the graves of former slaves and monuments of African-American authors were desecrated. In Bristol/UK, a musician of color was seriously injured during a targeted car attack. A senseless spiral of violence was set in motion that might eventually lead to deaths. Is it worth it? Removing monuments was and is common practice – usually implemented during regime changes, after parliamentary resolutions (e.g. because the objects are no longer considered timely) or at the request of certain interest groups. That an initiative of self-declared cleaner-uppers is now arbitrarily tearing down monuments smacks of hubris. Media commentaries in recent weeks have made suggestions as to how things could be done better, e.g. by putting the controversial statues in museums, by discussing them and letting the public decide what to do with them, by setting up central memorial sites for the victims of colonialism and/or by creating a counter-narrative with new monuments. Monuments for pioneers of democracy and anti-racists, for courageous female politicians and outstanding peace activists, for specific victims and the “Black Lives Matter” initiative, and also for the leaders of the #metoo-campaign or the “Fridays for Future” movement. Because, according to the Spanish daily newspaper “El País”: “The past, which is just as complicated as the present and which we can neither conclusively condemn nor acquit, is also inherent in these statues, monuments, buildings.”

Instead, pop stars succumb to angry activists and unabashed “haters” by immediately changing their supposedly racist stage names. I’m referring not only to Lady Antebellum, a trio from Nashville whose country rock ballad Need You Now was a gigantic hit in 2009 and who now call themselves simply ‘Lady A’, but also to the Dixie Chicks, three fundamentally fearless Texans who mutated into The Chicks under pressure from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Hard to believe, really. Because when you take a closer look, the allegedly offensive words are just as complex as the history of colonialism – and open to many interpretations. Of course “Antebellum”, Latin for “before the war”, is an established term which refers to the period in American history before the Civil War (1861-1865) – in other words the era in which the brutal system of slavery prevailed in the southern states. It was also the era of “southern belles”, bourgeois ladies who, because African-American slaves were doing the work, had time to pursue an education and engage in cultural activities. Antebellum is also the term for a specific architectural style characterized by the pillar- and porch-lined villas of white plantation owners, which are showcased in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, among others, but in particular in the film classic Gone with the Wind. This epic, one of the most successful movies of all time, is also being critically scrutinized because of its Southern perspective and sugarcoated depiction of slavery. Which is absolutely valid. What is less understandable, however, is that the streaming service HBO Max briefly removed the movie from its roster and re-introduced it in June with a trigger warning. Both the movie’s merits and its problematic aspects are well known, including from a broad range of secondary literature, so the viewing public should not be denied a certain degree of critical competency. And of course, despite all the justified criticism, here too the question is: What comes next? Where will this end? Will hundreds of thousands of movies, books, paintings, operas, plays now retroactively get trigger warnings? “It could be painful…” My suggestion: Best put a warning label on the entire planet Earth!

Pop = glitter + ambivalence

But that’s just a side note – back to “Antebellum”. Of course the term is linked to the subjugation of African-Americans. But that’s not all: In addition to making you think of kitsch and nostalgia, there is something morbid about the word. Because Antebellum is a historical phase of decadence that eventually ended with the victory of the northern states. Antebellum, a song by the Californian artist Vienna Teng, shows that pop music in particular is capable of playing with these kinds of concepts, of highlighting the glitter and ambivalence in distinctive words and of giving these compositions even more intensity: She uses the word to illustrate a generational conflict – and doesn’t run the slightest risk of being boycotted for this song.

Why the band, which claims to have had Antebellum architecture in mind when it named itself, bowed to the accusation of glorifying slavery and took the stage name Lady A in an almost painfully repentant way, instead of confidently letting the conflict play out, is beyond me. Just as incomprehensible as the awkward renaming of the Dixie Chicks into The Chicks. It goes without saying that some people found the word “Dixie” intolerable. Strictly speaking, it stands for the southern states during the era of slavery and for many Americans, the word has unwelcome associations. However, the issue here is even more complicated than it is with the word “Antebellum”.

Because “Dixie” is a word that was coined in the northern states, of all places, and is closely connected to a song called Dixie, also known as Dixie’s Land or I Wish I Was In Dixie. The song, written in the late 1850s by Daniel Decatur Emmett, is written from the perspective of an African-American man who is longing to return to a place called Dixie, while using every possible cliché pertaining to African-Americans. What the word “Dixie” actually stands for has never been reliably determined. Possible theories include the homestead of a farmer named John Dixie in Long Island/New York who was friendly to African-Americans, the farm of a not-so-friendly man on Manhattan Island, or the “Mason-Dixon-Line”, the former border between the North and South. What makes the issue even more complicated: The song was sung both in the northern and southern states, including as a kind of war song, with the lyrics being changed according to who was singing it. Dixie was even one of the favorite songs of Abraham Lincoln who defeated the South and abolished slavery.

But it is also true that the song belongs in the context of minstrel shows. These musical theater events of the 19th century employed the now incriminated “blackface”: Unsuspecting Northerners were fed a naïve, clichéd image of African-Americans by white artists who had painted their skin black. And that most certainly is not OK and definitely racist, especially from today’s perspective. Although 19th century Northerners largely opposed the barbarity of slavery in the South, their commitment should not be conflated with that of today’s “Black Lives Matter” activists. The North “attacked the South for the injustice of slavery and simultaneously created an idealized and romanticized world of the African-Americans on plantations,” musicologist Jochen Scheytt explains. “They developed the stereotype of the wandering ‘darky’, a former slave who can’t find his way in the free world and longs for the idyllic and carefree life on the plantation.” In other words: “The white audience, by laughing with and about the minstrel clown, expressed their ambivalence about the issue of slavery.” And Scheytt sees the minstrels fulfilling a further function: They used blackface “in the tradition of the classic jester, too. In Italian commedia dell’arte, the mask served to free the person behind it from all conventions and rules. The person could thus keep joking around without anyone stopping them and didn’t have to fear any consequences. Due to this mask, the minstrels were also able to voice criticism without having to be taken seriously.”

So the word “Dixie” ‘per se’ cannot be affixed to a barbaric tradition of the southern states. It reflects a time when the US was as divided as it is today, but operated against a completely different political and cultural backdrop. One doesn’t need to condone the ‘zeitgeist’ back then, but one can at least try to describe and understand it. Bob Dylan, who certainly can’t be suspected of harboring nationalist or misanthropic tendencies, covered the song Dixie in 2003, in the crazy music film grotesque Masked and Anonymous – without ruling out irony. Perhaps also as an allusion to The Band? Its members, who sometimes were Dylan’s sidekicks, succeeded in genuinely communicating the pain of a Southerner over the lost war and the death of his brother at the hands of a northern Yankee in the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, without being insulted as racist rednecks. And the legendary country-jazz-rock band Little Feat from California, a Western state which sided with the northern states politically during the Civil War, named one of its most well-known songs Dixie Chicken. It is the tongue-in-cheek ode to a contemporary man-eating hard-drinking southern belle, which mixes Northern and Southern traditions in a conciliatory manner in the music.

Dixieland Jazz? Oh my goodness…

The Dixie Chicks named themselves after just this song and album title – and have been anything but politically conservative ever since. Quite the opposite: As former darlings of the country community, lionized for fusing country and mainstream pop, they had to cope with several shitstorms and a veritable career derailment in 2003 after they criticized the American president George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion at a concert in London. They initially apologized, which in turn enraged fans of the band who were critical of Bush, but they then continued to defend their stance and fought their way back to success, not without regularly expressing their opinions on controversial topics. 

So it’s genuinely surprising that the band, which has weathered many conflicts, has now bowed to the pressure of political hardliners again and removed the word “Dixie” from its name. After all, the word is, as has been shown, even more multifaceted than the word “Antebellum”. People associate the word “Dixie” with many conflicting issues, and these days the term ultimately stands for the American South ‘per se’, whose existence can hardly be denied and which can’t be erased from the map.  And probably no one would now consider condemning a musical genre like Dixieland Jazz to the dustbin of history forever. Or would they? I’ve suddenly got a really bad feeling: Ultimately, is the band’s name change only due to a radical change in style, perhaps? As it happens, the brand-new album Gaslighter, released under the name The Chicks, features hardly any country elements anymore, but is clearly targeting the mainstream charts. And yet it has some combative tracks again, e.g. the song March, March, a hymn to current extra-parliamentary political activism, from the “Black Lives Matter” protests to the “Fridays for Future” movement. Is the name change just a PR move? No, that would be unworthy of these seminal musicians.

No small irony: After newly becoming the trio ‘Lady A’, Lady Antebellum promptly got embroiled in an embarrassing legal dispute – with, of all people, an African-American blues singer with the same name. Not to mention that every fan and pop expert knows what the ‘A’ once stood for. Absurd: The Dixie Chicks also had to come to an agreement with the members of a New Zealand 60s band called ‘The Chicks’ before they were able to adopt the new name. And they are now known by a word that many women worldwide find derogatory: Because “chicks” not only refers to young women ‘per se’ in a playful way, but often also to innocent young women who are seen as game by male players. So was this really a step forward? Doubtful.

Sweet home, evil flag

If you delve deeper into the subject, you will also come across the phenomenon of Southern Rock – past controversies about bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the use of the controversial Confederate flag in a rock context. Time and again, the southern states have been and are criticized as the home of racism, including in pop and rock songs: prominently in Southern Man by Neil Young (1971), a rejection of “the Southerner” who must atone for his crimes. Sweet Home Alabama, the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic from 1973, is also seen as a response to Southern Man – it moves rather ambivalently back and forth between the condemnation of racist attitudes and proud patriotism. Southern Rock is a musically exciting, but, when it comes to the lyrics, sometimes irritating mix of conservative attitudes and a bawdy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, certainly stoked by defiance against the constant hostility from bands from “the North”, from supposedly progressive hippies and from politically correct fans. This includes flaunting the controversial Confederate flag from the Civil War era, a white-framed blue diagonal cross on a red background, covered with thirteen white stars. Molly Hatchet adorned itself with the “evil” flag – as did Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Republican sympathizer and weapons’ enthusiast Kid Rock, whose hit All Summer Long (2007) is actually an ode to Sweet Home Alabama. In 1985, Tom Petty used the Confederate flag during his Southern Accents tour, but apologized for it and believably called it a misstep. For their part, the African-American rappers Ludicrous and Lil Jon gave the Confederate flag short shrift: They denounced it as a symbol of oppression and Lil Jon proceeded to dramatically set it on fire.

And so to Kanye West: We know that one time, he just took the Confederate flag for himself – and thus symbolically cancelled it. “I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag,” he is said to have told a radio station in L.A. “It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” This might be one of the wittier pranks of this otherwise slightly dim-witted, annoying artist. As a reminder: Kanye West is an African-American rapper who is married to the It-Girl Kim Kardashian and acts in a similarly blustering way to Donald Trump, except in the context of the music industry. He manages to regularly ruin his few, but definitely existing, moments of genius, such as the bizarrely multifaceted sleeper video for the song Famous, through wacky statements and acts. Weird PR stunts, like a surreal visit to Trump’s White House, rude outbursts against colleagues like Taylor Swift, and grotesque criticism of the African-American community (“400 years of slavery? That sounds like a choice.”) have been and still tend to be excused with the artist’s bipolar disorder. Nevertheless, West feels fit and suited for the American Presidency – the idea for his candidacy is said to have come to him in the shower. Oh dear. It might be a wonderfully clever pop gag, but unfortunately, I’m afraid no good will come of it.

Opponents of vaccination and abortion – as if it were the majority view

As a former Trump fan, “Ye” has long since broken with his idol and apparently wants to take over from the failed president at the upcoming election in November – even though key deadlines for entering the presidential race have long since passed. To be clear: West does NOT just want to promote his next album, as annoyed colleagues suspected. No, he really means it. Preliminary reports that he had withdrawn his candidacy weren’t confirmed. Thus, and this also ties in with the thoughts above, this little whippersnapper is acting just as arrogantly as the fanatical topplers of monuments: driven by ridiculous hubris and egomania, by bad style and by a disrespect for political office. Not to mention his strange views: As if it were the majority view, West cheerfully describes himself as anti-abortion and anti-vaccination and introduces, as a possible vice presidential candidate, the completely unknown “biblical life coach” Michelle Tidball. She has a fantastic therapeutic approach for people with psychological problems: “If you would get up every day and make your bed and do your dishes, you would be better.” That is definitely the stuff that forward-thinking political programs are made of. Anyone who looked at Trump and mused, “Things can’t get any worse,” will be disabused of that thought by Kanye West.

And so we are forced to conclude: Pop in the US is in a woeful state. Stars are either intimidated or fatuous self-promoters, and fans are going to extremes: on the one hand politically uber-correct fanatics, on the other bored entitled brats who see politically incorrect gangsta rappers as their new heroes.

What counts is populist posturing and wielding the powerful cudgel of over-the-top “political correctness”. What is missing is style, elegance and progressive power, a pop-specific “moral compass” with a strong moral stance to go with it. Bob Dylan or Neil Young might release new albums from time to time, but their former mass appeal has dissipated. Two artists who could save the day are focusing more on escapism and establishing alibis: Taylor Swift, the almost untouchable white superstar with strong opinions so far, is currently concentrating on releasing Folklore, her very own Corona album. And Beyoncé, the almost untouchable African-American superstar who, as the media often confirms, is sending a message of “Black empowerment”, has just released the 90-minute visual album Black Is King with Disney. This mythically charged, glamorous-opulent ode to “celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry” is an emotive fantasy trip which has nothing to do with everyday life in the 20th century or with “Black Lives Matter”. Black is beautiful? Without question. But didn’t we already have this once before, in the 60s? Even among African-Americans, Beyoncé’s album is being criticized as “commercialized Afro-folklore”, as a tool for her “Black Capitalism”. That too is telling.

And now even Madonna

And when even Madonna speaks up, the game can be considered over. At the start of the Corona crisis, the once inviolable star had already triggered a storm of protest when, in a video filmed from her luxury bathtub, she hallucinated that the virus makes all people equal. Now, like Donald Trump, she touts the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Corona and claims that a proven vaccine has long been available, but is being kept under lock and key so that the rich can get richer and the poor will get poorer and sicker. She cites Texas physician Stella Immanuel, who, according to media reports, blames sex with evil spirits for gynecological problems “and believes the US government is being run by ‘reptiles’. She is also convinced that gay marriage leads to adults marrying children.”

It’s a shame that the many exciting songs and artists that still exist are hardly being heard – and that instead, populists, egotists and esoterics are hogging the headlines. Pop in the United States has turned into solipsistic meandering, has apparently lost its bearing. Is accentuating strange things. Is using and being used – and is therefore rarely much fun right now. Not only with regard to Robbie Williams, who has already outed himself as a fan of aliens and UFOs and who recently remarked that the absurd “Pizzagate” theory hasn’t been disproved yet – these findings are just as valid in Europe. Jarring things are happening in Germany, i.e. Xavier Naidoo as a conspiracy theorist, gangsta rapper Farid Bang (he actually encouraged partygoers to obey the Corona rules on behalf of Düsseldorf’s mayor), or beer tent guests bellowing an old folk song with contemporary rape lyrics. More and more people are going nuts – and pop is, too.