Culture, Human Rights

Politics, Pop Culture and Leonard Cohen

Speaking of blog entries, I read just now Lisa Ito’s much talked-about blog entry Of Clarinet Players, Plush Carpets and Calibrated Political Repression. It’s a remarkable read, and it made me feel a little silly in writing stuff about music (and the thing about badminton, ugh) when I should write more about politics, state repression, etc. The problem with writing about popular culture is that however you try to sqeeze politics into it you end up feeling like a sellout. Of course this is wrong because whether we like it or not, for a lot of young people, popular culture is their “mass culture” and if we (as a movement for structural changes in society) want them on our side, we better know their culture.

Theodor Adorno once said that to write poetry (and by extension to create art in general) after Auschwitz is barbaric. This is true perhaps if we write the brand of court poetry prevalent among kiss-ass poets during the Marcos dictatorship, but not of people like Emmanuel Lacaba, who wrote poems on the back of cigarette packs, or the Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo, who warned of a day of reckoning for “apolitical intellectuals.” Not even of ordinary writers (not necessarily revolutionary, Caloy reminded me, quoting Fidel Castro), who write about turmoils and conflicts, personal or political.

Like the musician whose music I am currently listening to at this very moment — Leonard Cohen. I suppose Adorno would not mind Cohen singing to me, notwithstanding the latter’s intensely personal songs. Somewhere underneath every Cohen song wrought with personal anger and melancholia is a political critique of a decaying culture and society. In First We Take Manhattan, we even catch a glimpse of Cohen’s revolutionary spirit: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom / For trying to change the system from within / I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them / First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin…” Stretching it further in Hallelujah, Cohen’s words find resonance in the state fascism of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime: “She tied you to her kitchen chair / She broke your throne and she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah…”

Of course, Cohen may survive Adorno, but I’m not so sure if he’ll survive Mao Zedong, the former’s poetic and musical avant-gardism being the very negation of Mao’s “mass line.”


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