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Rocking The Cynical World

Why iconic political singer-songwriter Billy Bragg confronts fascists, Tea Parties, Glenn Beck–and his own fans.
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Ostrander: In the U.K., you’ve been a spokesperson and an icon for working-class interests for years. Is that ever a burden? Does anyone ever suggest that you’re not representing them?

Bragg: Yeah, I get bashed for it all the time. The British National Party threw three things at me during the election campaign: They said I’m not working class, I’m not heterosexual, and I’m not a good songwriter. But that ain’t going to stop me.

We're not the first people to have fought the struggle ... Eventually, we get 'em, and we usually get 'em with our music and culture.

The thing about me and Barking is actually about belonging, which is deeper than class. My son and my missus take the piss out of me mercilessly about being some sort of Cockney geezer. But it’s okay. In the end, it’s about being who you are. My brother and my mum still live in the borough. He’s a bricklayer. She lives in the house we grew up in. When the sh*t went down in the local council, it would have been easy for me to say that people in my hometown are all racists. But that would have been a complete betrayal of the people I went to school with.

One problem is that the white working class has been dismissed in the last 20 years in the U.K. In the U.S., I think that’s also why the Tea Party exists. Who does represent us any more when the Democratic Party has become an old, white-collar party within the Beltway? When the Labor Party has been hollowed out, and they’re not standing up for you?

Because consumerist individualism is fine when you’ve got money in your pocket, but when you’ve got no money, then you can feel very, very lonely.

Ostrander: You said in an interview in the Guardian, “Our real enemy is cynicism.” What did you mean?

Bragg: Well, what do you think Glenn Beck is in the business of doing? He’s spreading cynicism. He wants you to think, as a listener, that there’s no point in trying to do anything positive. Tear down the government.

But it's not Glenn Beck's cynicism that stops the world from changing.  It's our own cynicism–those of us who believe in a better world. Cynicism is our great enemy.

I’m not saying what the government does is always good, but the government is only as good as the people who elect it. When you’re encouraged to believe that anybody who puts forward an idea of collective responsibility like free health care is a socialist-Nazi, whatever that means, it undermines your belief in community. 

The free market can’t solve everyone’s problems. How are we going to solve climate change? Recycling your plastic and your bottles ain’t going to do it. It can’t just be individual action. It’s got to be collective action at a global scale.

Ostrander: Which of your songs do you feel have had a particularly powerful impact?

Bragg: Well, you can’t really measure it like that. You can’t say, “I wrote this song, and these things happened,” except that a song’s success might let me buy more socks and underpants. I could show you a graph, “I wrote these songs, and the number of socks and underpants in my drawer at home went up.”

When people tell me that they took action as they listened to my song, I’m always happy to receive their thanks. But I don’t take credit because I didn’t do all those things. They did. I just provided the soundtrack.

Ostrander: It sounds a little like you’re downplaying the impact of your music.

Billy Bragg, Video Still Video: Billy Bragg Live

Bragg: I’m not downplaying my music. But I don’t set out thinking, I’ve got to write a political song or a love song. I just write what turns up. Open the guitar case, play a couple of chords. The key song in my current set is a track from my most recent album called, “I Keep Faith.” It can either be a love song or a call to arms. When I perform, I say it’s about my faith in the audience’s ability to change the world.  But when my son heard me say that, he said to his mum, “Why didn’t Dad tell the audience this song is about you?” And my missus said, “Well, it is about me, Jack, but it’s also about what Daddy’s saying it’s about.” That, to me, is the best kind of song.

Ostrander: Is that song also about your own struggle with cynicism? Particularly these lyrics: “I know it takes a mess of courage to go against the grain ... let me rekindle all your hopes.”

Bragg: Yeah, of course. We’re all prone to cynicism. But it’s not Glenn Beck’s cynicism that stops the world from changing. It’s our own cynicism—those of us who believe in a better world. Cynicism is our great enemy. It’s Glenn Beck’s bread-and-f**king-butter. That’s the heartbreak. If we, coming together, can’t overcome our cynicism, then there really is no hope. We just might as well pack up and go home. And I can’t absolve myself from that. Hell, I helped get Tony Blair elected! But I’m fortunate: I get to stand with a thousand people every couple of weeks, and when I talk about my anger or my politics, everyone cheers. And I come away thinking, “Yeah! I’m not the only one who feels this.”

Madeline OstranderMadeline Ostrander interviewed Billy Bragg for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline is senior editor at YES!


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