My workplace Crikey held a fascinating and invigorating interview with singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg last night. Bragg has written a handful of the songs that mean the most to me in all the world, and he everything you’d hope, talking with wit, optimism and clear-eyed scepticism about empathy, music, politics and going to Glastonbury with Boris Johnson:
The overriding theme of the evening, and the question Crikey readers put to Bragg the most, was this: how do you stay hopeful as a progressive in the face of rising authoritarianism, eroding working conditions and environmental catastrophe?
Bragg has a simple answer: empathy.
‘If you can’t love people other than your family, what use can you be as a socialist when our politics is based fundamentally on empathy?’
And if mixing pop and politics has any use, Bragg says it’s in bringing that empathy about.
‘When I come offstage, my activism is recharged and my cynicism is kicked to the kerb for a few hours, and my job is to make the audience feel the same,’ he said.
“Not because I’ve been brilliant or written great songs, but because people are looking around themselves and thinking, ‘I’m not alone in this. There are other people who care about this shit.’
You can read my write up here (paywall, sorry, but you can — and should! — get a free trial).
Meanwhile, smashing through my Billy Bragg playlist as I was writing the above, I was reminded of one of my favourite pieces of music writing. Greil Marcus on “Levi Stubb’s Tears” is one of those rare and wonderful pieces of criticism that’s every bit as rich and moving as the work it interrogates:
“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is about a woman who listens to old Four Tops songs, maybe because their intensity lets her come to grips with her own feelings, maybe because the agony in Stubbs’ voice lets her take comfort, imagining that someone else hurts more than she does. She ran away from home, got married too young, her husband left her. One day he comes back and shoots her, but she lives. Save for a few ostentatiously poetic lines (“They stitched her back together and left her heart in pieces on the floor”), Bragg not only tells the story cleanly, he gets inside it, finds time for pauses: “Her husband was one of those blokes/Who seems to only laugh at his own jokes.” This is writing on the level of the best of Elvis Costello, and that’s as good as pop songwriting gets.