Oh, Serj Tankian. Bless him. Few songwriters better exemplify the pitfalls of overtly political songwriting than the top-hatted occasional poet and former System of a Down frontman — no one’s denying that his heart’s in the right place, but by God does he write some stridently awful lyrics. With Tankian’s new album out this week, we got to thinking about his work with his former band, and about political songwriting in general. We generally have nothing but respect for anyone who wants their songs to do more than rhyme “moon” with “June,” but the art of tackling politics in song is a difficult one to master — get it wrong and you come off as either hopelessly clueless or a tedious proselytizing windbag. So here are some examples of both. To be clear: it’s not like we disagree with the political views of these songs (or most of them, anyway). It’s just that they’re not exactly how we’d choose to try to put across those views. Sigh.
System of a Down — “BYOB”
See, here’s the problem with Tankian’s songwriting. Reducing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to a snappy two-line soundbite like “Why don’t presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?” — especially when prefacing it with ranting about fascism etc. — does no one any favors. It’s ultimately the same sort of four-legs-good, two-legs-bad rhetoric so beloved by the exact same people that Tankian wants to condemn. There’s too much polarizing rhetoric in this country — it’s easy and satisfying to stand up and decry people who don’t agree with your politics as Nazis/commies, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything beyond preaching to the converted (and, in this case, doing so in a rather juvenile way).
Bright Eyes — “When the President Talks to God”
See also: this song. “Does he ever smell his own bullshit/ When the president talks to God?” Oh, Conor. (As an aside, we’ve always felt that people keen to deride George W. Bush as some sort of born-again moron on vice-presidential puppet strings have vastly underestimated the man — he’s a whole lot more cynical and cunning than that.)
Hank Williams Jr. — “The McCain/Palin Tradition”
Meanwhile, from the other end of the bell curve: given his parentage, it’s not surprising that Hank Williams Jr. ended up a wingnut, but it is remarkable that he ended up as such a terrible songwriter. Let it be said that this occupies a special place in history as the only complimentary song anyone wrote about Sarah Palin, ever, as well as a handy checklist for every trope of right-wing demagoguery — the hilarity of sniping at the ”left-wing liberal media” in the country that’s home to Fox News is almost too great to bear, but it probably got Hank Jr. free lifetime accommodation at Ted Nugent’s hunting lodge.
Green Day — “American Idiot”
It’s hard to take patronizing political piffle from the band who wrote Dookie seriously, especially if that band happens to be releasing a song with lines like “Don’t want to be an American idiot/ Don’t want a nation under the new media” on a label owned by a company that also owns a decent chunk of said new media.
Toby Keith — “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”
If only this clown had just stuck to smoking weed with Willie, all this jingoistic unpleasantness could have been avoided.
Spacemen 3 — “Revolution”
We love Spacemen 3 as much as pretty much anyone on the planet, but even we’d admit that Pete Kember’s pro-drug rabble-rousing anthem wasn’t his finest hour. While we’re as tired of the war on drugs and its associated policy as anyone, Kember’s take on the whole issue here — “I’m tired/ I’m so tired/ Of a lot of people/ In a lot of high places/ Who don’t want you and me/ To enjoy ourselves” — was more angry teenager with revoked Playstation privileges than committed warrior for personal freedom.
Rap Against Rape — “What Did I Do Wrong?”
Can you be anti- an anti-rape song? If the song in question is a weird sort of hybrid Hi-NRG anthem with lyrics like, “Age it makes no difference/ It offers no defense/ To women in their 80s/ It just don’t make no sense,” we fear the answer is “yes.” Its heart is in the right place, sure — but ye gods, what a terrible piece of work.
The Cranberries — “Zombie”
Something we’ve always wondered: what does “Who are we mistaken?” actually mean? And while we’re in Ireland…
Plastic Ono Band — “The Luck of the Irish”
In which Yoko Ono comments on the Troubles in Northern Ireland as follows: “Let’s walk over rainbows like leprechauns/ The world would be one big Blarney stone.” And astonishingly, it’s still not as painful as…
Plastic Ono Band — “Give Peace a Chance”
If you haven’t headed straight to the comments section to howl us down, then hear us out. Surely no one could argue with this song? Don’t we all want world peace? But, see, that’s the thing. Of course we do. Does sitting in a bed chanting a trite slogan do anything to achieve said peace? Um, no. The problem with “Give Peace a Chance” is that its defies any sort of rational engagement. It reduces global geopolitics into one flower-waving slogan and dares anyone to challenge its sheer simplicity and undeniable good intentions. And as a result, it’s utterly, inscrutably inane.
This song is the equivalent of sticking your hands over your ears and chanting glossolalia to block out the bad people, an infuriatingly undergraduate take on politics that has everything to do with sloganeering and nothing to do with reality. It’s a song to sing to make you feel like you’re doing something when you’re not doing anything. It’s Kony 2012 for the kaftan generation. Maybe “Give peace a chance by [insert actual idea for removing or mitigating the resource inequalities/religious intolerance/ethnic divisions/etc that have led to the conflict in question, which mysteriously doesn’t actually appear to be discussed in Lennon’s lyric]” mightn’t been quite as lyrically concise as the recorded version, but at least it would have meant something.