If you think of contemporary human politics in terms of class, race and various kinds of entitlement and privilege, at the top of the pile you’ll see, as if sitting on Mount Olympus in a cheesy palace of marble and velour, male, mostly white rock stars. Rock music is a prime site for the amplification of capitalist subjectivities, a key axis of possibility for cultural reproduction, and of course it is a notoriously exploitative, racist and misogynistic industry. It’s interesting that just as fiction writers don’t often address the capitalist underpinnings of literature’s creation and policing, rock music rarely speaks about the music industry’s rapacity, its valorising of masculine desires, and objectification of women and demeaning of their achievements. Off the top of my head I can only think of three songs that attack the predatory nature of the music industry, and two of them are by the same band.
Still, music produced mostly by millionaires is terribly important to just about everybody. Music gets under your skin and in your head in the way that books don’t, and often does so at a crucial time in your life. If you are distressed, or overwhelmed, or even just happy, it’s a common practice to play your favourite music. Music outfoxes literature in that regard. The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips said that Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks meant more to him than anything Freud ever wrote, and statements like that sound about right. If you construct a sentence that goes ‘Such-and-such an album is more important to me than …’ you might find a surprising number of things on the list. So when one of our cherished male rock gods reveals himself to be not just devoid of divine insight but apparently as comfortable in his bloated privilege as Hugh Hefner was in his dressing gown, it can feel like a real betrayal. (I’ll come back to the feelings of betrayal later, because they are worth thinking about.)
If rock music amplifies capitalism’s misogyny, racism and male entitlement, it’s not surprising that rock star politics are often built out of those things. Enter Nick Cave (on the heels of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke), whose recent arguments justifying his tour of Israel and ignoring of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its confrontation with the racist, criminal politics of the Israeli state, sit squarely within that tradition. Often considered to be something of a rock intellectual Cave said that, ‘After a lot of thought and consideration, I rang up my people and said, “We’re doing a European tour and Israel.” Because it suddenly became very important to make a stand against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians, and to silence musicians.’ Apart from being utterly politically tone-deaf and avoidant of the urgent arguments of BDS and Artists for Palestine, Cave’s extensive ‘thought and consideration’ reveal a lunkheaded, spiteful, brattish kind of violent petulance that reeks of white entitlement.
In my day job I run an outfit that works with men who use violence and abuse in the home. When I started work there I thought I had a good handle politically on feminist understandings, on structural misogyny and how male privilege works under capitalism. This was bullshit of course. But what I’ve since discovered in working amid the daily devastation of male uses of violence is that misogyny and male privilege and entitlement are everywhere, and are actively replicated all the time, in minute detail, not just by lying fascists like Peter Dutton, but also in what is often considered to be liberal progressive politics. When Nick Cave came out with his inane and frightening arguments about BDS, and Thom Yorke hit back at criticism of Radiohead’s gigs in Tel Aviv on the grounds that people were hurting the feelings of Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood, whose partner is an Israeli, I immediately thought of the arguments that the men we work with use to justify their actions. First there’s an astonished outrage, a hurt disbelief that anyone could question how good they are. Then as they briefly stumble around locked in the encounter with an alternative view of themselves, a kind of existential confusion makes its appearance. Feelings of shame kick in, most often resulting in some sort of pushback; accusations, denials, and attempts to create irrelevant descriptions of the opposing view that can be trumpeted as major logical fallacies (‘You are censoring musicians!’). In this way their omnipotent position can be re-established, and their own sense of victimhood paraded. Cave pretty much acknowledged this when he said that in fact it was BDS that made him break the boycott – Not only am I going to hurt you, but it’s your fault. By his own admission, Cave experienced the arguments of BDS and Artists for Palestine as personal humiliation.
Peter Dutton follows this paranoid hyper-vigilant pattern all the time. It’s virtually all he does. Of course, in working professionally with men who are abusive in this way helping them to identify their shame and stay there with it for a little while, is the heart of the work. It’s tricky stuff because if you get it wrong that shame will find its way out into the world as a backlash against others, usually women and children.
But nobody has the capacity to ensure that kind of containment happens with privileged rock stars. They famously rebound from catastrophic events that would destroy the career of anyone else. In the case of Cave and Yorke, they’ve both doubled-down on their commitment to breaking the artistic boycott of Israel and in the process handed major propaganda opportunities to a militarised, racist and murderous occupation. Cave’s ignorance and Yorke’s mindboggling lack of self-awareness directly contribute to reinforcing the legitimacy of the violence of the Israeli state. What was interesting about the arguments of both of Cave and York, is that neither addressed the concerns of BDS. Cave didn’t say, ‘Well, I support Israel’s occupation because …’, and Yorke didn’t build a nuanced refutation of Palestinian self-determination. Again, this is a prime strategy of the hurt white male: avoid the topic in question, and find your way back to victim-blaming by assuming martyrdom.
Running rings around Cave and Yorke’s blithering stupidity and chronic narcissism isn’t hard. And nobody would care, if they weren’t both such internationally loved and revered figures. It’s easy, in a way, to get on board with the condemnation of Harvey Weinstein. He’s always and obviously been an unpleasant individual who radiates creepy brutality. Even if you don’t really get feminist politics, you’re probably not going to try and put forward a defence of his actions. It’s harder when it comes down to celebrity predators who trade on their likeableness, like Louis CK or George Takei. Rock stars have that kind of unconditional regard magnified by a zillion. Rock stars are what film stars wish they were. Rock stars get into our hearts the way that film stars, or anyone else for that matter, don’t. We get married while their songs play, dance to their rhythms, hum their melodies under our breath on the train to work, and sing their lyrics in times of despair and exaltation.
So when these heroes of our inner lives are revealed to be reactionary, childish and bullying, thuggishly committed to courses of action that are so clearly aligned with the cruellest, bloodiest and most malicious desires and intentions of the Most High, and so out of tune, as it were, with their own songs, songs we have become so dependent on, it can feel like a betrayal of a kind.
What has happened is that capitalism has let us down, again. We became invested in its circuits of desire and longing, and it let us down. In her essay on climate change The myth of apathy the psychoanalyst Renee Lertzman wrote that our despair and paralysis about what is overwhelming us as capitalism devours the planet is not a product of our acquiescence, of our inability to give a fuck. We are overwhelmed because we care too much, too intensely; because our melancholia, born out of our arrested ability to mourn – and speak of it – is real.
In a way, I don’t expect rock gods to be able to think straight. When you become intergalactically adored at the age of twenty for writing a few love songs, the impact on your ability to be a coherent thinker and an integrated individual must be phenomenal. When our musical heroes prove to be so terribly lame, it’s tempting to imitate them: to deny, to evade and wait til the fuss dies down, to pretend that mourning isn’t real and disguise it as martyrdom, or to avoid the conclusion that capitalism got you again. If you are a Nick Cave or Radiohead fan, there are any number of ways you might manage out their endorsement of appalling proto-fascist ideologies that comes with their rejection of BDS and implicit endorsement of the horrific suffering of the Palestinians. But maybe there’s still a developmental task there, not just for people who have The Boatman’s Call or Hail to the Thief on high rotation, but for all of us; an impasse we haven’t yet negotiated.
In her recent book on psychosis, language and writers, Incandescent Alphabets, Annie Rogers writes of the way that language is encoded in and shapes our pre-linguistic awareness. There is always, with language, something unspeakable, something left over. Jacques Lacan wrote that encountering language is like being saturated by a stream of moving water. And we might add that even pre-linguistically, it is water already stained with capitalism’s demands and subjectivities. The ‘water of language’ passes through us, says Lacan, and leaves ‘something behind as it passes, some detritus’ with which we play. And in this fragmented solitary, liminal, crowded playspace come to live and feed the songs that people like Nick Cave and Thom Yorke write.
Sometimes I think, in the depths of my own melancholia, only partly relieved by those songs that have become so important to me, that we inhabit some kind of poisoned timestream. In an alternative universe on an alternative Earth there is an almost identical rock music that created the same songs and albums, but one in which the lyrics have changed, lyrics that don’t celebrate the solemn ponderings of machismo, or cheer about rape, or make paternalistic, needy declarations of love.
But we don’t live there. We live here, on a burning planet dominated by capitalism’s disintegrating, savage and fraudulent ideas about love, the self, and the riddles of existence, where celebrity violence is rife, and where rock aristocrats like Nick Cave and Thom Yorke make the most gobsmacking statements about violent oppression, politics and artistic ‘freedom’ and sally forth as paid propagandists for bloody apartheid.
Giorgio Agamben said of the work of Maurice Blanchot that one of Blanchot’s preoccupations was the question, ‘How is literature possible?’ In the same way – remembering the unprecedented times in which we live, that require a reach of political understanding and compassion that capitalism is not capable of demonstrating – we can (also) ask, ‘How is rock and roll possible?’ And how can it become something much more connected and aligned with our experience of the tsunami of suffering that capitalism is inflicting upon us?
Perhaps it’s too late. Perhaps we actually need something else entirely. But one of the things that’s become obvious over the past few weeks, as sexual assault is revealed as a standard male greeting, is how bewildered a lot of powerful men are by the changes around them. Whether it’s Louis CK struggling to understand his own violence, or Tony Abbott and Lyle Shelton trying to spin the Same Sex Marriage vote as an endorsement of their violently homophobic views, or Nick Cave babbling about ‘censorship’ when faced with his complicity in endorsing apartheid savagery, things are really shifting. And maybe one day, long after Abbott is forgotten and Peter Dutton is a footnote in the history books under ‘Minor Thugs of the twenty-first century’, rock stardom will also be a curiosity, and rock gods an example of how stupid and damaging overweening narcissism and valorisation of machismo privilege can be to someone, the stupid shit it calls forth from their mouths in words so dear to the ears of fascists.
Image: Nick Cave / Thomas Helbig
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!