Music Monday: Billy Bragg’s Transcendant Activism

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation,

Desert us not. We are between the wars.

Billy Bragg

I came to Billy Bragg’s music during a moment that I believed in politics. I had a good heart and wanted to fix the world’s problems, and Bragg’s music offered a kind of utopian inspiration for my political imagination.

The passions of those days are gone for me. I’ve made the ethical move away from activism and have sought contemplative distance away from the grating sound of what Matthew Arnold called the “ignorant armies” clashing by night. Ideological Facebook skirmishes do little more than amuse me now. The delusion that just the right slogan written on just the right meme will turn the tide of the battle for the good never ceases to make me smile (or sometimes squint).

Nonetheless, Billy Bragg’s music, though clearly ideological, holds a dear place in my heart to this day. There is a sweetness to his political vision that I can’t help but admire still.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing him in concert three times in three different cities and each experience was transcendent for me. He is one of those rare performers who is so entertaining as a speaker, you almost look forward to his lengthy diatribes and introductions as much as you do his musical performance. To put it bluntly, the man is a comic genius. His banter with his band and with his audience (sycophants and hecklers alike) is truly priceless. He is currently on tour and if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking him out.

It’s always occurred to me when seeing him perform that his audience remains loyal to him because he remains loyal to them. Though I fight to maintain my precious political reclusiveness, I still have my imagination and I can imagine a better world for all people. This is who Billy aims his music at; the person who believes in what is currently not. In this way, his music transcends the immediate political sphere and directs his listener toward a distant utopian future.

In less capable hands, this might be silly and naïve, but Billy’s humor, musical skill, and utter lack of cynicism makes it work against all odds.

Though I cannot match his commitment to What Is Not, I am most thankful for it. Billy Bragg’s music still operates like a conscience for me, never letting me rest in my detachment. Gently challenging my Arnoldian ideals and keeping me from drifting away into cruel, cynical callousness.

“Between the Wars” is a masterpiece. A folk song sung to a single distorted electric guitar. In this song, Billy weaves youthful idealism and wicked realism into a stark portrait of our collective ideals, failures, and hopes. Please listen, enjoy, and, most importantly, consider.

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