What Makes for a Good Topical Song?

By Rob Patterson

I spend much time here talking about political music and songs, and it’s also the subject of many of my emails from readers. And thanks to reader George Lyne for pointing out that in my year-end wrap-up of political music—which by its nature and that of life itself can never be thoroughly comprehensive—I neglected to mention Live at Shea Stadium by The Clash, who as time goes on resonate as one of the greatest political rock bands of all time.

A recent tout I got in a Facebook email on a new song from an artist I have known and been a follower of for many years got me thinking on just what makes for a successful topical song, as they were once called. And Tim Krekel’s “Bailout Blues” does offer a good place to start.

First and foremost, any song whether it’s political or not has to work musically. The music is the delivery vehicle, and if you don’t get into the basic lose-yourself-in-the-listening experience that is a sure sign of fine musical creations, a song about political or social issues is merely academic. I’m reminded of how many years ago the opening line to “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming”—struck me as clunky, and it still does today. But the recording, with its martial rhythm, snarling guitars and layer cake vocal harmonies, hits me right where I feel as effectively as it did nearly 40 years ago.

Krekel’s bit of contemporary commentary has that same musical quality. It’s a smoking Southern-style rocker in the vein of Elvis Presley’s recording of “Mystery Train” with a kicking rhythm, stinging guitar work and a punchy horn section—no surprise as Krekel is one of the best proponents out there today (and for many years before) of rock’n’roll that’s firmly planted in the genre’s birth roots in a way that sends shivers of delight down my spine and gets my hips shaking in a way that hollers the fact that such basics can remain fresh and invigorating when delivered by masterful musicians. (Check out this You Tube live clip that lays a bit back into the groove than the studio recording in the coolest way: www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5vejaNX9Ds.)

Sure, the lyrics are simple. But the longer I live the more I feel that best rock lines are often the most basic, like “Be Bop A Lula, She’s My Baby,” as much as comedian Steve Allen used that years ago as a starting point for playful mockery of the style. But Krekel hits right onto the issue about the Wall Street bailout most common folks are pondering (“There’s a whole lot of money/goin’ somewhere/I think I see it floating off into thin air”) and delivers a witty turn of phrase on the notion of “bailout” that decries the obscene earnings of the traders and finaglers who get us into this mess with the implication that the people may not put up with such stuff much longer (“You’d better bailout now/while your parachute still works”).

It’s an effective bit of agitprop that leaves the analysis to the editorial pages and speaks out for the common man while offering sweet relief as well as a musical uplift in hard times. As they used to say on “American Bandstand,” I’ll give it a 96, Dick, because you can dance to it and sing along, and it hits us where we live and feel. Many years from now, the song will still have its eternal bop and remind quite effectively of these times just like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” vividly recalls the Great Depression yet still resonates long afterwards.

Another tune that passed through my player recently and does the political trick handily is “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV” by The Asylum Street Spankers (on their wonderful recent double-disc live CD of vaudeville and medicine show musical entertainment for modern times, What? And Give Up Show Biz?). Humor and irony are its power sources as commentary, and the way it uses the catchy even-if-you-hate-it melody of Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” makes it a wickedly witty parody that highlights the shallowness of such “support the troops” gestures.

My favorite political song of recent years is “Woody Guthrie” by the English techno-roots band—which may sound like a tautology but is in fact a potent and original fusion—Alabama 3 (also known here in the US as A3). It surveys the underside of America and the world and concludes that nationalism and patriotism must be transcended with the chorus “Don’t need no country/Don’t fly no flag/Cut no slack for the union jack/stars and stripes have got me jetlagged.” Once again, you can sing along and dance to it, and its observations cut to the bone.

And my current favorite model for a topical song that has remained so would have to by Dylan’s “Masters Of War,” which is Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex warning made into music. It takes its melody from a venerable folk tune, references the Bible in the right ways, boasts a plain spoken poetic eloquence, and may apply even more to the Iraq war than it did in 1963, before Vietnam even became a flashpoint national issue, when it was written.

There are many ways to skin the political song cat, yet it is as tricky as herding an army of those felines to write a good one. But all of the above manage to do so in both musical and lyrical ways that are both timely and timeless, which is the ultimate test.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2009

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