Friday, August 15, 2008

Political music: Derek Webb and the Flobots

Two (relatively) new albums deal with contemporary politics in some thoughtful and provocative ways. The first, by Derek Webb, is not all that surprising for those who are familiar with his past work, most notably his previous album, Mockingbird. His most recent album, The Ringing Bell (released in May 2007), is not as musically or lyrically strong as his earlier efforts, and he still has not found a way to avoid sounding preachy and heavy-handed. That said, one of the weaker songs on the album is also the most politically incendiary. It’s title is “A Savior on Capitol Hill”:
I’m so tired of these mortal men
With their hands on their wallets and their hearts full of sin
Scared of their enemies, scared of their friends
And always running for re-election
So come to DC if it be thy will
Because we’ve never had a savior on Capitol Hill

You can always trust the devil or a politician
To be the devil or a politician
But beyond that friends you’d best beware
‘Cause at the Pentagon bar they’re an inseparable pair
And as long as the lobbyists are paying their bills
We’ll never have a savior on Capitol Hill

[Bridge]
All of our problems gonna disappear
When we can whisper right in that President’s ear
He could walk right across the reflection pool
In his combat boots and ten thousand dollar suit

You can render unto Caesar everything that’s his
You can trust in his power to come to your defense
It’s the way of the world, the way of the gun
It’s the trading of an evil for a lesser one
So don’t hold your breath or your vote until
You think you’ve finally found a savior up on Capitol Hill

Much more recently, on April 15, 2008, the Flobots released their debut album, Fight with Tools. The Flobots are a hip-hop/rap group who exchange songs about drugs, money, and women for songs that engage the social and political issues of our time. Wikipedia describes them as “a socialist anti-establishment alternative rock/rap group.” The rap genre works well for them. Rap has always had the latent (and sometimes realized) potential for being socially subversive, arising as it does out of the African-American musical tradition. Their songs are reminiscent of Eminem’s early work, both in the sound of James Laurie’s voice and in their lyrical in-your-faceness, though with superior lyrics. But the music of The Flobots is what sets them apart, far outstripping the majority of what passes as hip-hop today. Their band includes a violinist, in addition to bass and guitar. While all of their songs are socially engaged, one of the more impressive examples is the song, “Stand Up”:
Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Stand up We shall not be moved
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

We still don't understand thunder and lightning
Flash back to when we didn't fund the dam
Didn't fund the dam levee? No wonder man
Now our whole damn city's torn asunder man
Under water but we still don't understand
We see hurricane spills overrun the land
Through gaps you couldn't fill with a 100 tons of sand
No we still don't understand
We've seen planes in the windows of buildings crumbled in
We've seen flames send the chills through London
And we've sent planes to kill them and some of them were children
But still we crumbling the building
Underfunded but we still don't understand
Under God but we kill like the son of Sam
But if you feel like I feel like about the son of man
We will overcome

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Stand up We shall not be moved
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
Except by a woman dying from a loss of food
Except by a freedom fighter bleeding on a cross for you
We shall not be moved
Except by a system thats rotten through
Neglecting the victims and ordering the cops to shoot
High treason now we need to prosecute

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
And we won't fight a war for fossil fuel
Its times like this that you want to plot a coup
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Unless were taking a route we have not pursued
So if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up

Now shake, shake
A Polaroid dream
nightmare negatives develop on the screen
We sit back and wait for the government team
Criticize they but who the fuck are we
The people want peace but the leaders want war
Our neighbors don't speak, peek through the front door
House representatives preach "stay the course"
Time for a leap of faith
Once More

Put your hands up high if you haven't abandoned
Hope that the pen strokes stronger than the cannon
Balls to the wall, Nose to the grindstone
My interrogation techniques leave your mind blown
So Place your bets lets speak to the enemy
Don't let em pretend that we seek blood
And who's we anyways Kemo Sabe?
Mighty warlord wanna-be street thug
a threat for a threat leaves the whole world terrified
blow for blow never settles the score
word for word is time need clarify
We the people did not want war

So Stand up
We shall not be moved
Except By a child with no socks and shoes
If you've got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Unless were taking a route we have not pursued
So if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up and I'll copy you

I said Put your hands up and I'll copy you
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
if you've got a dream and a lot to do
Put your hands up

5 comments:

Chris Donato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Donato said...

What was that you said about the failure of contemporary Christian ethics in the previous post? All exhortation (understatement) and no exposition?

To my mind, the Flobots, at least with respect to the lyrics you've posted here, avoid the above criticism, while Derek Webb does not. (Something tells me they're two peas in a pod, though — "Christianists" through and through.) But maybe it just boils down to crappy lyrics versus poetry (which you've noted).

aboulet said...

Love the Flobots. I heard Handlebars a while ago and picked up their album. Good stuff.

J.W. said...

Hi there, found your blog through Per Caritatem. Have you listened to Mewithoutyou? I think Aaron Weiss is one of the best lyricists currently writing within pop music of any sort. The music leans post-hardcore, with a fair bit of screaming and sing-speak, but it's melodic enough to engage the majority of folks, I should think.

thekibitzer said...

If you have any interest at all in bluegrass/roots music then you might want to check out "Moneyland" from the Del McCoury band. It's a collection of old and new songs from various artists centered on the theme of economic injustice in rural America. Not something you hear about all that often, but a theme that has deep roots in bluegrass and country music.