Jesse Jarnow

phish dialogue, cont.

I made the decision today to include other stuff in the blog that don’t really fit anywhere else. My and I have been talking recently about Phish and politics. A few weeks ago, he made a post to his blog, in response to an email I sent him (which is included in his post). Below is my response. I always feel like a bit of a dolt writing about politics, so hopefully he’ll be able to hammer me into shape (bloody politics major).

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I’m gonna start somewhat away from Phish, with a passage I read this morning in (huh-huh) that Susan Orlean essay in the Best Music Writing book. It’s called “The Congo Sound” and is about music from Congo/Zaire.

“Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the country for 32 years, was aware of how directly music communicated to the Congolese. When he took power, in 1965, he demanded that the country’s musicians write songs to celebrate his achievement, and then arranged for them to receive generous state sponsorship as a sort of insurance policy against future songs that might question his actions. When he introduced his Authenticité campaign, in 1971, with the aim of ridding the country of foreign influence, he designated the great soukous orchestra O.K. Jazz the official musical medium for conveying his doctrine. He traveled throughout Zaire with the orchestra; after each of his speeches, O.K. Jazz performed, both to sweeten the medicine of Authenticité and to use its lyrics to lecture the crowds, however gorgeously, about Mobutu’s programs. It would be like George W. Bush giving a series of speeches about why he wanted to go to war with Iraq, accompanied by foreign-policy songs by Bruce Springsteen.”

(Which, of course, is in itself an amusing idea.)

So, this is obviously an extreme example of what happens when music gets politicized. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen like this. Orlean points this out. In fact, the bulk of her article is about how so many Congolese musicians ended up in Paris. They were expatriates there, self-exiled because a particular leader would jail them for speaking/singing out against him. Amusingly (sort of), said leader actually was a big music fan, and repeatedly pardoned the worst offenders so they could play concerts. Hopefully, that wouldn’t happen in the United States, but it’s worth considering.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Howard Dean manages to convince Phish to join him on his campaign. They could play before his rallies, and tens of thousands of Phish fans would flock to him. Hell, I’d go. I like Phish. And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that Dean won the election. Finally, let’s imagine that, somehow, a buncha electoral wonks derived some formula that proved, without a trace of a doubt, that it was Phishheads who put Dean over the top. All of that would put Phish in a mighty weird spot. Howard Dean is President. He knows Phish can help sell his policies. Then what? Does music then become a part of the government process, ala Zaire? Does Dean go mad with power? Okay, yeah, so that’s a paranoid fantasy played out to the extreme. But it leads us to another question, which perhaps we can use to reverse-engineer some interesting stuff: what is the ideal relationship between government/politics and music?

Now, there’s surely a difference between government and politics, which you can probably better define. Here’s the one I’m going to work with: government is decision-making body, politics is the mechanism that allows the decisions to be acted out.

What is the most ideal? A band that (only) allows themselves to be used to attract potential followers to a politician? Or a band that does this, and then uses their music to amplify the politician’s policies? The latter is mighty close to advertising. But, again, it doesn’t have to be. Newspapers who report on political decisions certainly don’t implicitly endorse what they’re covering. There’s no reason why a band couldn’t, y’know, intelligently critique policy decisions through their music. But what politician wants a band following him around like that? We’re then left with the model of the band as independent arbiter, functioning autonomously (again, like a newspaper). They, too, would make policy decisions. Just as the New York Times can make a show of their endorsements, so could Phish. At the beginning of each campaign season and/or Phish tour, they could write songs summarizing the issues, pointing out where everybody stands (a verse for Dean, a verse for Kerry, etc.), and present their conclusions at the end
of a climactic 40 minute jam. Dude, it’d be phat.

But who wants to do that? That’s hideously close to didactic Schoolhouse Rock – educational music and stuff – and not particularly what Phish are trying to achieve artistically. So, let’s keep on looking for ideals. We’re getting closer to the reality of the situation now. The most workable midway point would simply for Phish’s lyrics to become more socially conscious without
delving into the specifics. But, without an outright politicization, the impact on politics would be mostly unquantifiable. Nonetheless, I think that would be the ideal: socially conscious (though perhaps still abstract) lyrics, coupled with a political endorsement (or an active attempt to make
people go out and vote). One of the things that I value about Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s work (especially John Wesley Harding) is its ability to be completely socially conscious without losing an iota of emotional impact. “All Along The Watchtower” has been covered badly so many times by now that its meaning is mostly gone, but the lyrics are powerful:

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

I can’t say exactly how that’s socially conscious, but simply through its use of language and character (businessman, joker, thief), the world it puts my imagination in is a real one. Phish, by contrast, puts my imagination in a very fantastical place. Their lyrics have always been vague — or, at least, obscure. Again, this is an artistic choice, for the most part. And I’d even argue that it’s a valid one. Or, at least, it’d be disingenuous if they suddenly became politicized now, 20 years into their career.

They have always been somewhat progressive, but only in small ways. For a long time, they had a Greenpeace table at every show. When Greenpeace discontinued their touring program, the band replaced them with the Waterwheel Foundation. Every show, they raffle off backstage passes, signed posters, etc., in return for donations. The donations are channeled to local charities — homeless shelters, safe houses for abused women, and the like. They are, like you said the initial post, safe political bets — Good Things by anybody’s standards. In that sense, Waterwheel isn’t too different from the philanthropic arm of any small corporation.

That leads to something else I’ve been thinking about: we assume that Phish’s fans are progressive, but why should they be? That’s not what the attraction of the music is. There’s a sense of exploration, for sure. But, it’s a safe kind of exploration. The Dead lived communally. Phish never did. While it might be said that Phish’s fans are of a lifestyle, it’s not the same thing. Most of Phish’s fans are college-age. The people who go out on tour with Phish, for the most part, aren’t (mostly) not doing so at the expense of their broader lives. Like college, Phish tour (and especially Phish festivals) is a liminal space, a sorta morally autonomous zone where
kids can try different things (usually drugs, but also living on less money, etc.). While the act of entering a liminal territory is a sign of some liberalism, it only is to a degree. I think it’d be more fair to say that it’s part of growing up. Of course, one can also look at Phish tour as a breeding ground for budding capitalists.

In terms of actual musical qualities, what brings Phish fans together is a sense of musical adventure, but only a certain kind of musical adventure. Medeski Martin and Wood are an interesting example, to this end: after Trey endorsed them in 1995 (they opened some Phish shows, and Trey wrote in the Phish newsletter that they were “music that makes [him] want to drive too fast”), Phish fans began showing up at their shows. Now, MMW are from the NYC scene — came up playing with Zorn and Ribot and that bunch. As was vogue in the early ’90s, they were also into Afro-Cuban rhythms, old funk, etc.. It was music that was danceable. There was a big spike in their popularity. A year or so after that, the band moved into a deeply atonal
period. The Phish fans hated it. While Phish frequently is atonal, it’s mostly as a counter-balance to their brighter stuff. There’s always brightness at the end. With MMW, they’d stay dark and discordant for entire sets. While they surely gained many new fans anyway, it’s clear that the
mass audience wasn’t into the weird stuff. (Their last album, FWIW, was a return to the groove-oriented material of yore.)

What brings Phish fans together, then, is an idea of whimsy. This doesn’t imply a liberal fanbase at all (nor does it exclude one). You wrote of Phish (and others) distrust of power, which I think is definitely true. You conclude by saying “But people need to be organized, and telling them what to think is different than identifying a bunch of people who think the same way and getting them to all speak together to get something done.” I agree, but I’m starting to wonder: do Phish fans really all think in the same way? Would there be some way of finding out? It’s possible that their fanbase is more democratic (as opposed to Democratic) than it might first appear. Even so, I’d still wager that – given the average age of Phish fans – that most of ‘em would vote Democrat. However, whether they would do so as a result of the same thing which made them like Phish… well, that’s another question.

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