Footage of Bob Dylan during the 1985 recording of ‘We are the world’ turned into a meme recently. The footage is great, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I read the title of Aidan Coleman’s poem ‘Band | Aid’ (published in Overland’s summer edition and republished below). The connection made sense because ‘We are the world’ was the US response to Band Aid, a 1984 UK invention famous for ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’.
In the footage, Dylan is either drunk or high or just beginning to be dully suspicious of the whole charity super-group music-single enterprise. He barely mouths the lyrics to the song, if he knows them at all.
Coleman’s poem is written as if someone interviewed Dylan the second after he stepped out of the studio. The form is what you’d expect from Dylan in a bad mood – biting, resigned, stunted, accusatory. The content is of his impressions of a now more prevalent performative groupthink culture of incremental, surface-level gestures towards justice.
As such, I like Coleman’s title as a reference to the term ‘band-aid solution’. Public discourse about vital things is decided these days by tiny rhetorical wins that give one side or another the upper hand for the course of around one news cycle.
Coleman’s first line shows that, of course, there are some public figures that we (as a culture) have no qualms about (literally) throwing into the jungle for a more prolonged decline and fate, but ‘Everything else’, the poem goes on to say, can be summed up as the ‘tennis’ of shows like Q&A.
Writing in the Guardian after Brexit and Trump, Jeff Sparrow bemoaned this level of discourse in current activism:
On the left, we spend our time calling out and shutting down, lolling and meming and dropping mics.
Unfortunately, so much of what passes for activism now centres on an individualised moralism, less about changing the world than about making yourself feel (or perhaps sound) good while all about you everything remains exactly the same.
If you want the study notes on this poem, read Sparrow’s whole article.
In Coleman’s ‘Band | Aid’, we see the ‘shutting down’ in the second stanza’s gesture of yanking out colonialist statues, only for the vacuum to be filled with saccharine silence. The problems inherent in the foundations that propped the whole thing up in the first place never get addressed.
See how, because (some) activism never proceeds beyond the band-aid win, the major parties are allowed to make policy as a series of incremental adjustments to the status quo ‘equation’ – the winners become those ‘agile’ enough to literally push themselves to the brink in a gig economy, or conversely those who can command a fleet of ‘precarious’ mining trucks.
See the way a culture of snark leaves no room for literally any type of public behaviour except the exemplary. Taking on other ‘shades’ in the spectrum except disclaimer-grey – things like ‘dark’, and ‘neon’, and even ‘menace’ – is a hapless mistake that will leave you vulnerable to long-range remote bombing-on by twitter ‘eggs’.
One of the victims of a culture of cyclical, minor-league one-upmanship is our respect and appreciation for mystery. In her essay discussing Simone Weil, ‘Against Interpretation’, Susan Sontag talks about the difference between heroes and saints. Weil was an ‘aesthetic’ saint because her life was full of the absurd: her ‘fanatical asceticism’, ‘her contempt for pleasure and for happiness’, ‘her noble and ridiculous political gestures’, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction.
These ‘shades’ of self-indeterminacy, poet Aidan Coleman says in a different way, can only ever be used as a ‘costume’ these days. They could never possibly form the basis of an objective ethics, because they are hapless and ridiculous and ‘self-mutilating’ to everyone’s apparent life-goal of moral positioning. Because the only thing we have all been conditioned to want is, in Sontag’s words, the ‘secure possession of the truth’ that our side is the winning one, at least for one day.
It’s only with hindsight that Dylan’s own ‘hapless’ response to ‘We are the world’ reveals itself to be the most human and sane response to what was, in retrospect, a surreal exercise in profile-jostling. We’ll likely need another thirty years of hindsight to realise how unproductive, how in service to the status quo, our mainstream politico-social culture actually is. As usual, the poets will be the first to warn us. Coleman’s poem is one beginning.
Band | Aid – Aidan Coleman
Animals attack whichever celebrity.
can be summed up as tennis.
Statues yanked out
and the squares fill
with custard. Day’s equation
for agile pushers, precarious
trucks. Darks and neons
plucked from our mouths
before we can ask.
What of those shades of menace
we lost, simply a matter of costume?
Your plane dropped eggs
on hapless villains,
who – accordingly chastened –
Image: crop from cover of Band Aid 30: Do they know it’s Christmas (2014)