It seems as if mass culture is talking more loudly than ever. But what, exactly, is it saying? Disposable art is everywhere, from movie trailers and YouTube clips to television spots, sound bites and music videos. Much of the jargon-laden trash that comes our way is absolute noise. Yet some still attempts to make a statement.

Jonathan Duggan
Jonathan Duggan
TOP: Thom Yorke. MIDDLE: Diddy. BOTTOM: John Mayer. (Courtesy of treefingers.com, hiphopgalaxy.com and namm.com)
Jonathan Duggan

Music videos are the hardest to come by today, which seems crushingly stupid considering that VH1, as you may remember, stands for “Video Hits One.” MTV2 and mtvU are the last bastions of heavy-rotation music videos on basic cable. After watching only these two channels for the better part of a day while sick, I realized political music videos are very much in vogue.

Musicians have always been vocal, and for good reason. They’re highly visible, moneyed and most have a team of high-powered, fearless publicists, stylists, directors and consultants who constantly shroud them.

But saturation is undoubtedly the issue today. This feeling of scraping the bottom of the political barrel with a rusty spoon is currently exemplified in many ways by many artists.

Take John Mayer’s video for his latest single, “Waiting on the World to Change.” Mayer struts around a city drained of its color while he simultaneously chastises his generation for their apathy and attempts to call them to action. “They say we stand for nothing and there’s no way we ever could,” he sings while arty pictures of hazmat masks and urban youths switch back and forth. “When you trust your television / What you get is what you got / ‘Cause when they own the information, oh / They can bend it all they want.” His statements are true. But the problem is that no one is going to write a letter to Congress or start a demonstration after watching his video. It’s too watered down and general. It sucks.

On the other end of the spectrum, master of political paranoia Thom Yorke has a video out for “Harrowdown Hill.” Widely known to be written about the death of British Ministry of Defense employee Dr. David Kelly, who was found dead on the hill days after testifying in front of a parliamentary committee concerning a report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, “Harrowdown Hill” is a scary, angry song, and Yorke knows it. Some consider his death to be a murder, even though his official cause of death is listed as suicide. “You will be dispensed with / When you’ve become inconvenient,” Yorke warbles as the outline of a predatory falcon soars through an oil-paint sky. Narrating as Kelly himself, Yorke asks, “Did I fall or was I pushed? / Don’t ask me / Ask the ministry.” By being less explicit about the next course of action and more specific about the details of a single, startling event, Yorke’s video doesn’t use as much trite imagery (with the exception of the riot footage placed at the end) and is much more effective (not to mention artistic.)

Hip hop has woven a socially conscious thread through its tapestry since its inception. But it seems that this genre, too, is stalling out. The video for Mr. Lif’s “Brothaz,” while certainly startling, is hardly a video at all. Lif’s rapping is clean, quick and cutting, but the statements that flash across the screen in capital letters take away from his message rather than adding to it. It’s hard to hear his cutting, clever raps like “”People drawn and quartered / Castrated, slaughtered, burned, disgraced / Gang raped, displaced / But live it up / We ’bout to burn in hell ’cause God knows” when I’m reading things like “TODAY MORE THAN 300,000 CHILD SOLDIERS ARE FIGHTING IN MORE THAN 30 COUNTRIES.” The sad fact is that no one wants to read while they watch film and television. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone in a video store say “Oh, it has subtitles? Ugh. I really don’t want to read all that,” I’d have more cream than the Wu-Tang Clan.

Jurassic Five and Dave Matthews collaborated on the track “Work It Out,” and the video is the crowning glory of all absurd commentary. Talk about a total lack of artistry: In the video, a George Bush look-alike jogs gaily through the streets of a major city while the police profile black men and the NSA taps phones. At one point Bush’s doppelganger runs past men with signs that say “Out of work.” He turns around, whips out a sharpie and changes the words to “Work It Out” – as in work it out on your own. The video is kind of funny, but it’s incredibly stupid.

Has political art been declawed by the indifference of a generation? Or should the artists blame themselves when their messages go unnoticed? People seemed more inclined to laugh than vote when Diddy commanded the youth to “Vote or die.” And remember when Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live years ago? No one did anything then, either, because that also wasn’t art.

If musicians want to make a political statement through art, they can’t discard the art in favor of piling on more politics. It simply doesn’t work. Record labels and video producers will continue to buy up politically charged records and film idiotic videos like these, but if this disregard for creativity continues, no one will ever take political art seriously again.

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