By Joseph Moore
The age old march towards social and political relevance is alive and well in Hollywood. Anyone who is aware of this march will have seen, or at least heard of, the Malik Benjelloul documentary feature Searching for Sugar Man. The award-winning documentary tells the rags to… well, rags story of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, whose compositions are regarded as being on par with Bob Dylan’s. Rodriguez was known to perform with his back turned (not unlike Dylan’s performances nowadays, but as a complete unknown) when he first started out, appearing in “faggot bars, hooker bars, [and] motorcycle funerals” (lyrics from A Most Disgusting Song, 1972). Faced with the general prejudice of the early 1970s towards Latino-Americans, Rodriguez simply refused to play into the formulaic marketing strategies that for decades had been the only way to get noticed. It wasn’t until the living standards of the ’80s and ’90s had improved, with the selfish, product driven “artist” being the norm, that the humble Rodriguez was given any audience or attention in his home country. This, perhaps, was due to his reclusive and genuine persona; he offered a glimpse of the good old days of music, when performers were convincingly real in their pursuit for artistic merit. By the late ’90s, he was – for the first time – marketable, because he was different from the rest. His difference was all that needed highlighting to make money for the businessmen around him, who were and still are controlling the distribution of his songs, his ideas and his personality.
“Soon you know I’ll leave you/And I’ll never look behind/’Cos I was born for the purpose/That crucifies your mind./So con, convince your mirror/As you’ve always done before/Giving substance to shadows/Giving substance ever more.” (Crucify Your Mind, 1970)
“Woke up in the morning with an ache in my head / splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed / opened up the window to listen to the news / but all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.” (The Establishment Blues, 1970)
He even challenged the excess repression of the day through the basest of human curiosities:
“I wonder how many times you’ve had sex / I wonder do you know who’ll be next?” (I Wonder, 1970)
This begs the question of what can be classified, in the United States particularly, as music that is both accepted and impactful? Dylan spoke out against the political establishment and wealthy elite early in his career, yet when the pressure became too great, he backed away and deliberately alienated his followers before returning to writing love songs that softened impact and floated above controversy. That was his right as an artist, but when one is driven to create art in one way or another by important social upheavals such as, for example, the Vietnam war, what say then when principles and positions are abandoned without so much of an excuse as the Dylanesque, ‘I’m tired of speaking out’? Isn’t art meant to invigorate and provoke us? Isn’t it meant to tell us something about ourselves as well as the world we live in?