An interesting thing happened to me during the holidays – interesting but not uncommon. The Greg Lake song “I Believe In Father Christmas,” from ELP Works Volume 2, played and someone said it was one of their favorite holiday tunes, which is understandable. They stated then that it captured the essence of the holidays, and that’s where my confusion began. The song is not so much a nostalgic reminisce of Christmases past but, indeed, a repudiation.
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve
When I voiced my opinion that there was a bit of wishful thinking occurring on the part of the listener – an opinion that has been upheld in various articles with Lake himself, along with sentiments from the song’s lyricist Peter Sinfield – the response was, “Oh, I bet your house around the holidays is a barrel of laughs.” I let the argument go because I’ve seen where it heads, being nowhere. Despite the clearly critical tone of the lyrics, this person had decided the song was as festive as any other and no one would change his mind.
And, in fact, it is not my place to change his or anyone else’s mind. I am an observer of the piece, just as he is and everyone else, but I have to wonder. What do the musicians think when they write a specific song with a pointed social commentary included, and that statement thoroughly bleached out for superficial preferences?
Be forewarned. We’re about to get super-nerdy about consumerism. If you’re expecting merely a breezy gripe-fest about willful misinterpretation, big data, and coping with your favorite artist who turns out to be a loathsome sexual predator, this might not be the right sandbox for you.
That’s Not What The Producer Meant – Like it or not, every act of manufacture – and creative expression is a form of manufacturing, and is a transaction, even if no money changes hands – has a producer and a consumer. This gets me thinking about who ultimately owns the product and retains the authorial status over what that thing is, what it is meant to be, and what it’s supposed to do.
Thinking back to holiday music, what does Ray Davies think about when The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” is played as a holly-decked punk rock basher while the subtext of English class warfare and poverty get swept aside? Does he feel that once the song has left his hands, it is for the world to decide, to attribute or subtract meaning?
Sometimes, these things become weaponized. In the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen objected to Ronald Reagan’s use at political rallies of “Born in the USA” as a rah-rah, cheerleading anthem of jingoistic fervor. He asked that the point of the song, which is about the hard life of a reluctant soldier after the war is done, not be lost. That point of view is evident from the lines about having no work prospects back home, or the indifference of the Veterans Administration, to remembrance of soldiers who didn’t make it while others went missing in action and were never seen or heard from again. In this example, the producer has a very specific intention for the product.
Still, people use it as a pro-America, pro-war cudgel not because of what it says, but because it sounds like a march, like an anthem. The consumer has made a decision about what this product is to them, and despite contrary evidence, will use the product as they see fit. And recently, people have taken to using it in antagonistic ways. Knowing exactly what “Born in the USA” is meant to convey, some people purposefully use it with the opposite messaging intent, and when they are asked by the artist not to use it, they are told “no.” It’s returned as an act of spite, much as a pickup truck driver who “rolls coal” does so not to enhance performance values, but to hoist a middle finger to the EPA.
In an ideal situation, the listener would take in what the musicians have given in the manner the musicians intended, but no one is forcing them to. Very often, the aim of the songwriter is so basic and transparent that it’s to infer anything other than the explicit statement. The magic of a good song is often when one “makes it their own” in the way that it seems to apply so effectively to one’s life. “It’s as if it was written just for me,” so many have stated.
The Product Is The Same But Our Understanding Of The Producer Has Changed – Do you cut the artist out of the conversation once the product has been completed and released? This is a crucial theme in the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. It suggests exactly that an author’s intentions, politics, religion, and so forth, should “hold no special weight in determining an interpretation” of their writing. Once they’ve released their grip on their work, they cannot claw it back or make demands upon how you should respond to it. (A related video on the subject by Lindsay Ellis, seen below, is particularly thought-provoking.)
This notion has sprung up in the strangest ways lately. Because of #MeToo’s revelations of everything from bad behavior to criminal and inhumane acts on the part of high powered men in media, individual reckoning of the material they produced is necessitated. If you watch a movie produced by Harvey Weinstein now, are you able to divorce the art from the artist? Can you laugh as freely at Bill Cosby’s dentist sketch know it’s central premise is about a numbing anesthetic? Are there songs you have enjoyed for decades that now elicit a cringe not because of what they say, but because of who said them? If you are, in fact, the owner of the song now and can edit out their stake, it should be easy to enjoy as you always have…but it is not. In this, there’s an active attempt to remove the producer from the producer-consumer relationship to save what’s left of the product, and this effort can be difficult. Mostly, the consumer has to reject the product: guilt by association, in a way.
The Producer Has Control And Extracts A Payment – To take this thought experiment to its extreme, let’s say you just bought a car. That might be different to you than purchasing a song, but it is still a product and, by most reasonable measures, your purchase should confer upon you full ownership to do as you choose with it (within safe measure). The speculative car is a brand-new model with all the bells and whistles included as standard. It is tied to the Nth degree to the Internet-of-things, and it is collecting all kinds of data about you: where you go, how fast you drive there, how often you visit certain places, do you buy products there, and more. You say that the car is yours, therefore your car’s data is yours. The companies that make the cars say otherwise.
While your personal privacy is of greater concern than whether a song is or is not celebrating Christmas or is or is not making a critical statement against the treatment of Vietnam war veterans, or whether you have the mental ability to redact away the creator of the work because of their wrongful actions, it once again begs the question: does ownership matter, and who is the ultimate owner, the entity that made the product or the entity that bought the product?
Are we then resigned to make compromises? Even though our cellphones are an organ farm for meaty, juicy data; our Spotify playlists a haven for marketers; and our YouTube and Netflix queues a canary in the “future purchases” coalmine; we’re not going to stop.
Even though it is clear the artist wants us to take on the message they sent in the way they meant it, we as consumers will ultimately parse that however we choose. Even if we do cut out HOW they said it, we cannot completely cut out THAT they said it, especially if they are proven to have harmed others in their personal behavior. Even as we presume to assert our free will, the products we use in our lives are using us as data generators.
The producer-consumer relationship is a part of everything we do, and the more we think we own, the easier it becomes to be owned. Maybe what we are talking about is the illusion of control. Hallelujah, noel, be it heaven or hell, the freedom we get we deserve.