Music can be a pretty good surrogate for political analysis. And if you think I’m having a laugh – or you find the very idea preposterous – just pass this by. Because if you read this blog regularly, I hope you’ll have noted that I do believe music is a wholly valid means to convey complex argument and difficult feelings.
This follows, a little, from my last post about anger. Also, it is about a particular sort of song and a particular sort of place that one finds in most musicals. Ironically, I’m talking songs of transition – though not quite in the way most of my trans posters will recognize it.
Its that moment in a play, in a musical (in real life) where we realize, suddenly, that something has changed. That the old reality and the old established power structures are hollow and, if not already crumbled into dust are nonetheless on their way out.
It’s a moment of realization and of taking power, which makes it both magnificent and terrifying at the same time.
Janek Wisniewski: a promise of retribution to come
Start with one that most of you won’t quite get – because its in Polish. Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim (tr: the Ballad of Janek Wisniewski) is a song based on a poem written to commemorate the death of an 18-year worker killed in the Polish city of Gdynia during the protests that took place in December 1970.
In a sense, this is the exception that makes the rule, because this was not quite the point when the people of Poland threw off their shackles: they had to wait a further twenty years for that. Still, the song (and the imagery accompanying it) is powerful – and its use in a classic film, Man of Iron, which was released as the military clamped down in the early 80’s, highlighted the contrast between the power of popular anger and the repressive state.
No. This is not a triumphal song. It is an angry one. A powerful one, too, reminding the rulers that their rule cannot last forever and that waiting for the end to that rule are the people.
Janek Wiśniewski padł: “Janek Wisniewski fell”
You don’t need to understand the words to hear the power, the contempt for authority and the promise of bitter revenge that this song holds – the promise that from one young man’s death will rise something far greater.
Sing (if you’re glad to be gay)
Next up, a song I know well from my campaigning days in the late 70’s, working with and on behalf of the Gay Liberation Movement. Sing if you’re glad to be gay is a bittersweet celebration of gayness, riven throughout with righteous anger.
First encountered, it felt like a lament: I still remember it being played, one of the last tracks at an activist fund-raiser, and those of us still on the dance floor joining hands and swaying in time. I remember crying that night – tears of rage and sadness – and not being the only one to weep, either.
Later, it became an anthem of sorts, encompassing entire lost generations of gay experience: anger, but also, as time went on a certain sense of triumph. Not vindictive. The triumph of having survived: of having come through “all that” and still maintaining dignity.
It is so full of neat single-line meaning. Just one phrase is worth repeating for now, spat out with as much vicious irony as Tom Robinson can muster: “the buggers are legal now: what more are they after?”
Oh. How the trans world would love to hear the anwer to that question today!
Last up – and a million miles from least important – is one I’ve mentioned more than once before. A real transition song, not least because it comes from a musical and marks the point where “evil” witch Elphaba realizes she has a choice to make.
“Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game”
And on. Its about transition – and as such, it is a song for all those who ever transitioned. More, it is a song that speaks to those in the trans community now. Yes: something HAS changed.
This year, last year: a community always before in the shadows is starting to come into its own. We’ve yet to take to the air: yet to find our wings and fly.
Yet there is a sense, an overpowering sense that our time is coming. Triumph? Maybe a little. More, though, a sense that there has been a fundamental shift in social attitudes, in society, which means that trans is now out of the box – and we’re not going back in.
“As someone told me lately:
everyone deserves a chance to fly.”
I love my music: love every last sickly saccharine line of it. For me, at least, music has always been intimately entwined with politics.
And so it is.