The rock-star-turned-social-commentator is seldom a pleasant sight. Despite our natural suspicions around such figures, we still hope that the artists and musicians we adore will have political values in agreement with our own. It’s one way that music that pushes beyond love songs can be held close and give us that extra personal meaning.
For those on the left, this is an especially common feeling, as if almost by compulsion we look for cultural expressions that speak to the same concerns that frame our ways of seeing and experiencing politics. But as the example of Peter Garrett well and truly taught us, musicians with good politics can more than easily lose face. For me, Garrett’s music sounds emptier now that it’s accompanied by the sound of personal compromise and pathetic acceptance.
For these reasons, it’s especially thrilling when the artists we adore do deliver a political stance of open conviction and resolution. This is the nice thing about Roger Waters. For most people in the audience at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne last Sunday night, and at similarly sized venues around Australia during his current tour, the urge to see the show was not Waters’ support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS), but the familiarity and the brilliance of Pink Floyd. For me it was something like the reverse. Not that I don’t like Pink Floyd – in fact, the band provided me with the soundtrack of my adolescence. I was wary because I didn’t want to ruin my experience of those perfect albums and the memory so intimately connected to the sounds of my teens.
But what led me to desperately seek a last-minute ticket to the stadium gig was Waters’ wonderful discussion at an event put on the previous Friday by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN). The Q&A had been organised at the last minute in a small theatre in Melbourne, and was attended by a small group of people – no-one really beyond the organised left. How bizarre that a figure who has sold as many albums as Roger Waters couldn’t fill a hall to talk about a political issue.
We might think more people would have come down if they had known about it, yet more people might have known about it if supporting Palestine were not seen as a fringe and unpopular position. Waters is by far the most famous advocate of BDS, most recently speaking out against artists like Nick Cave and Radiohead, who have chosen to play in Israel, and in praise of Lorde who decided to cancel her tour there.
What was inspiring about the APAN event was Waters’ candid politics of conviction. He explained that he decided to support BDS after visiting Israel in 2005 and the West Bank in 2006. He placed his rationale within his own history: he had been in the Young Socialists in Cambridge, his mum read the Daily Worker, and what he believed had always mattered for public figures was their politics of solidarity. According to Waters, the principle of a boycott is akin to not crossing a picket line.
He criticised the complicity of Elton John, who ‘played Sun City about 500 times’ – breaking the boycott of apartheid South Africa – who was always happy to buddy up with the British establishment, and whose social conscience couldn’t expand beyond the concerns of homophobia. Steven Van Zandt, a figure who campaigned against apartheid South Africa, was also criticised by Waters for his own blindside: refusing to see the connections between South Africa and Israel. Instead, according to Waters, Van Zandt claimed, ‘the situation in Palestine is much more complicated’, and then ‘threatened’ Waters that his career could be shorted by his outspoken actions.
It is one of the hollow myths of liberals that the truth will be free only when ‘discussed appropriately’. Waters has consistently sought to appeal to those who decide to play in Israel, and has just as consistently been ignored, derided and attacked for it. This politics of silence and acceptance, through its own hypocrisy, suggests it is not more discussion that starts to turn the tide on the issue, but those who take a political stance.
It is the obviousness and the powerful simplicity of Waters’ appeal that is refreshing. He paused between songs during the set at Rod Laver to ‘apologise for getting political’. This comment was followed by a laugh. The entire performance was political. He told the crowd how fantastic the APAN meeting was and about the need to support the Palestinians and resist the current status quo. If anyone in the audience missed the reference, they probably didn’t miss the huge depiction of Trump as Hitler and in a KKK hood during the epic track ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ from Animals, the most radical of the Pink Floyd concept albums. Waters sings: ‘Big man, pig man / Ha, ha, charade you are / You well-heeled big wheel / Ha, ha, charade you are.’ Trump’s face twists and contorts on the big screen as Waters spits out the chorus, and the iconic flying pig floats around the stadium, bearing the slogan ‘welcome to the machine’.
The show’s visuals fused anti-rich politics with disdain for the powerful (May, Farage, Netanyahu, etc) during ‘Money’, and displayed the horrors of militarism during ‘Us and Them’, when the screens filled with images of the bombing of Palestine and the violence of the state – soldiers, police and politicians. Against this, footage of protestors at #BlackLivesMatter rallies and elsewhere lingered for that extra second, as if to hang in the air during the all-encompassing soundscapes.
For Waters, there is nothing stronger than the power of mass politics. At one beautiful moment, underscoring his repeated messages to ‘resist’, across the screen flashed protestors with raised fists, determination and fury worn on their faces. Fury for a world torn apart, and determination galvanised by resistance. This is the rage that drives Waters’ performance, a rage that needs to be learnt, or learnt again, for many in his audience, but a rage that burns strong in Palestine and beyond. As he wrote to Nick Cave in a public statement:
This is about children, like the young boys blown to bits while playing soccer on the beach in Gaza. Boys murdered by Israel. Boys symbolic of the thousands and thousands of children sacrificed in Israel’s ‘Mowing of the lawn.’ Israel’s terminology, not mine. We, hundreds of thousands of us, supporters of BDS and human rights throughout history all over the world join together in memory of Sharpeville and Wounded Knee and Lidice and Budapest and Ferguson and Standing Rock and Gaza and raise our fists in protest. We hurl our glasses into the fire of your arrogant unconcern, and smash our bracelets on the rock of your implacable indifference.
Waters finished the show by brandishing an Indigenous flag presented to him at the APAN event. It is political presentations like this, few but significant, that are reminders that radical, critical resistance to the status quo is sometimes found in unlikely places, like a corporate stadium gig put on by a seventy-four-year-old English rock star.