Happy Fourth of July.
Which is always a good day to reflect upon freedom and liberty and justice for all.
As the progeny of immigrants who fled the holocaust–and then whose father was drafted and sent to invade the country from which he fled–I have a pretty serious appreciation for our freedoms, and more frequently than just July 4.
In fact, at this time where revolution and talk thereof, along with the drive for democracy, occurs before our very eyes–in Egypt, as I write–on the television almost daily, I do have some hope for the world and that change, albeit slow, is possible.
So, why am I writing this jingoistic crap on a rock and roll site?
Because music, and literature and the arts play such a serious role in changing our culture and pushing forth the idea of progress.
The FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover and wanting to protect the Nixon White House and its policies back in the 70’s, worked hard to expel Lennon and Yoko Ono. In fact there is a great PBS American Masters film called LENNONYC that documents Lennon and Ono’s battle with the government. (And keeping things current, I found a pretty good article correlating Lennon’s struggle with the Dream Act.)
So, over the past month, I noted a couple of rock’n’roll documentaries that I wanted to see, and that tie the notions of freedom to music.
The first is the HBO produced film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a movie that ostensibly depicts the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and their three members who were sentenced to two years in prison for protesting the return of Vladmir Putin to the head of the Russian government (the charge was “hooliganism”).
I confess that did not watch the whole film because in truth the movie wasn’t really very good, and the music of Pussy Riot was not really the issue anyway. It is clearly freedom of thought and speech and a government’s suppression those freedoms–the same thing in 2013 in Russia, that Nixon wanted to suppress–that was the core.
The other film was the Oscar winning documentary of last year, Searching for Sugar Man: a movie about the Detroit-based singer/songwriter Rodriguez, his music. For Rodriguez album Cold Fact, virtually unknown in the United States (though distributed through Motown) was as influential among the youth of South Africa during the final throes of Apartheid in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s as anything Bob Dylan produced domestically a decade earlier.
Though both journeys–those of Pussy Riot and Rodriguez–are beyond compelling, yet completely different paths, the influence and notoriety that each propagated due to their respective art is huge. (Interestingly, both artists are identified as rock and rollers, though their music could not indeed be more different.)
The point, though, is that just as the US wanted to censor John Lennon, and the South Africans did indeed censor Rodriguez (by the way, Searching for Sugar Man is indeed a terrific movie as well as a wonderful celebration to the human spirit) now, 40 years later, the Russians have worked to suppress Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, the three convicted members of Pussy Riot.
What these examples remind us is just how powerful music is, for it can make national governments fearful of performers who simply want to tell their own version of the truth.
I write this remembering that our country is far from perfect; however, at least there are now ideally few of us who need fear being imprisoned for speaking our mind irrespective of which side of the political fence we live or speak (meaning I think Trace Adkins is a xenophobic pig, and that Ted Nugent is an idiot, but I am glad they have the freedom to say and sing what they want).
I think the other points are never underestimate the power of art, which includes music. And, finally, that the struggle for freedom for all the inhabitants of the planet is a long and winding road.
Just a few things to think about as we enjoy our own Independence Day (and, do catch both LENNONYC and Searching for Sugar Man).