Love Songs and Patria

by zunguzungu

Before I talk about Vusi Mahlasela, I want to talk about Billy Bragg.

I remember reading some newspaper reviewer claiming that the ultimate Billy Bragg lyric is this one: “that brutality and the economy are related now I understand,” from “Valentines Day is Over,” a song about domestic violence. That seems more or less right to me, as far as it goes, and though it’s hard to show in writing how catchy, how sing-able, that line is, take my word for it that it is, which is another very Braggy thing: chewing up multisyllabics and singing out pop songs. But what’s really characteristic about it is that it combines the two overriding themes in his lyrics, love and leftist politics.

The interesting thing, though, is how they are combined. For one thing, they are rarely yoked together so snugly as in that particular song; just as often, the two themes are explicitly in conflict, as in the chorus to “New England,” which proclaims that “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl.” Yet what the newspaper guy was flagging is still present even there, for whether in conflict or synthesized, what we see is a desire that they become the same, that patriotism and patriarchy be things which can go together.

I’m thinking of these terms (as he is) in their better senses, which they are rarely allowed to signify: patriotism as Mark Twain has it (“Love your country always and your government when it deserves it”) and patriarchy as the kind of responsible love that a parent (male or otherwise) has for family. And the very terms I’m using in making that distinction illustrates my point: as attachment to locality becomes a desire for better governance (implying political activism and solidarity) it resembles love; as love becomes an attachment to relationships, it more and more implies a responsibility that is not so different from what public service is supposed to be, the selfless assumption of power that would, for that reason, not be abused.

The fact that practical experience teaches us how rarely this actually occurs does not necessarily contradict its value as an ideal point of reference, and this is, I think, the desire at the heart of both songs: to understand public roles by reference to the what is seen in the best in private, and vice versa, to think through a better masculinity against the backdrop of failures of it. Which is why the dissonance between “Valentines Day is Over” and “A New England” doesn’t so much represent distinct competing perspectives, but rather the desire for their dialectic synthesis: “Valentines Day is Over” wants to argue the interrelatedness of love and economy by reference to their breakdown in domestic violence (the absence as trace of the absent) while “A New England” foregrounds the distinction against the background of an essential continuity.

In both, the key is that patriarchy and patriotism are more complicated than their dumbest meanest versions, even if (since they name the problem that needs to be overcome) those connotations can’t be simply put aside either. He wants the terms, in other words, to be plastic: precisely by emphasizing the violence of patriarchy, he seeks to emphasize a form of masculine responsibility that would not be so; by keying in on an ambition to change the world (that his disavowal only emphasizes), he attempts to imagine romantic love as a sublation of that desire. In other words, he tears the terms apart as an effort to revive them, locating the problem in specifically bad patriotisms/patriarchies as a way of distinguishing, implicitly, the good versions that get buried beneath. “Valentines Day is Over” is interested in the ways that bad public life (“the economy”) destroy private lives, in this case by making an (unemployed) boyfriend into an abuser, with the silent implication that a new England would produce another guy. And “A New England” keys in on the difference between the romance conventions of a pop song (“looking for another girl”) and the new England of the title as a way of transcending it, of making patriotism the highest expression of love, or love the best articulation of patriotism.