As protests against racism and police brutality continue throughout the world, many artists have decided to join the conversation with new songs about the conditions that led to this sustained uprising. Some have been received better than others.
Recently, a fan asked goth-rock legend Nick Cave, who’s revered for his lyrical nuance, why he’s refrained from writing explicitly political songs throughout his entire career. In the latest edition of Cave’s Red Hands File newsletter, he thoughtfully explained to his listeners why he doesn’t feel comfortable writing songs with “political agendas”.
“Songs with political agendas inhabit a different space,” he wrote. “They have little patience for nuance, neutrality or impartiality. Their aim is to get the message across in as clear and persuasive a manner as possible.” He continued,
“There can be great value in these sorts of songs, but they are usually born from a particular combination of rigidity and zealousness, which I personally do not possess. My songs seem to be resistant to fixed, inflexible points of view. They have, as you say, a concern for common, non-hierarchical suffering. They are not in the business of saving the world; rather they are in the business of saving the soul of the world.”
The 62-year-old Australian musician then expressed his happiness that his songs are offered to everyone, and that “they do not preach and do not divide”:
“I have very little control over what songs I write. They are constructed, incrementally, in the smallest of ways, the greater meaning revealing itself after the fact. They are often slippery, amorphous things, with unclear trajectories — position-free attempts at understanding the mysteries of the heart. I guess I could write a protest song, but I think I would, in the end, feel compromised in doing so, not because there aren’t things I am fundamentally opposed to — there are — but because I would be using my particular talents to deal with something I consider to be morally obvious. Personally, I have little inclination to do that. It’s just not what I do.”
Cave’s statements here — especially his comments on “rigidity” and the importance of nuance — sound similar to those he made about “self-righteous” woke culture. “Living in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, beyond dogma and grand conviction, is good for the business of songwriting, and for my life in general,” Cave wrote in 2019. “This is the reason I tend to become uncomfortable around all ideologies that brand themselves as ‘the truth’ or ‘the way.’”
Read Cave’s latest newsletter entry in full here. This wasn’t the first time he’s used Red Hands File to address complicated questions pertaining to the moral responsibilities of art and artists. Last year, when asked how he’s dealing with Morrissey’s pivot to far-right extremism, he encouraged fans to challenge his personal views but to not let his those undermine his contributions to music history.
Earlier this year, Cave responded to a question about changing old “problematic lyrics” of his, and his sentiment was along the same lines of preserving art, warts-and-all. “As flawed as they may be, the souls of the songs must be protected at all costs,” he said.
In a less controversial move, Cave recently auctioned off a pair of his own socks to help save a London music venue.