On Political Songs, or Not Sounding Like a Self-Righteous Prick

Something I always contemplate in lyric writing and my band banter is how deep do I dive into politics? As my friend Steve put it, “Music For Car Commercials” features my first overtly political song, “Old Boy,” but it’s definitely not a left vs. right piece. The key lyric: “Old words spew from that fresh face/yeah, he’s just like the guy he replaced/Old Boy, ain’t such a thing as change.” There’s also the line, “Hope’s just a thing they say.”

Now “Old Boy” and a few other songs on the album are about resignation and feeling powerless in modern society. But there’s a reason the album ends with “Thoroughly Modern Milieu” and the line, “You are not all right, you are not OK.” It’s a call to realize that while much looks bleak for us huddled masses (the term “Old Boy” in my mind refers to the everyman), don’t stop fighting for what you want, what you believe. Resignation is for chumps.

“Old Boy” is a bit more of a warning against politicians, the media and the financial system. Even the first chorus is a call to rise above the shit: “Tired of running the race/when we can’t even keep on the pace/Old Boy, never get ahead that way.” The game is rigged? Stop playing it – but stop playing, just make your own game.

A bit vague, maybe. But overtly political music irritates me because it’s self righteous and preachy. I enjoy me some 80s hardcore, but I try to filter out the “Reagan Sux!” lyrics and revel in the pure emotion (anger). I enjoyed the first few Bright Eyes albums (definitely out of my normal stomping grounds) but he warded me off for good with his anti-Bush screeds in the mid-00s.

A political message shouldn’t eclipse the actual song. Take a listen to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” The lyrics are biting but don’t punch you in the face; what grabs you is that catchy chorus and the tremolo guitar (especially the harmonics, which I’ve heard sampled countless times). Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a hot groove before being an anthem – you’re tapping your foot and nodding your head in time as you say, “That ain’t right.”

The power of music should be it’s ability to stand the test of time, transcend from generation to generation. History and politics roll in cycles – I can relate to the words of both “For What It’s Worth” and “What’s Going On” though they comment on society before my birth. The lyrics reference a time, but also a sensation as timeless as the music itself.

Will “Old Boy” pass the same test, with future generations whistling alongside the chorus? Probably not, but you can’t say I didn’t try. And I doubt I’ll look back and say, “Christ, what preachy bullshit.”

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