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"In The Ghetto" and the Power of (Political) Tears

3 November 2006

Recently, I was compelled to try to memorize ELVIS PRESLEY’s 1969 comeback hit, “In The Ghetto,” because I always (even sometimes despite myself) loved that song, and even though it was beautifully and lovingly covered by NICK CAVE in 1984, I haven’t heard either version of it on the radio, whether commercial or college stations, in quite a while and felt the “ipod of my memory” in this case needed a little sonic jumpstart if I wanted to feel the song from within.

As I began trying to memorize it (and find the right key for my voice), I began to notice how much more challenging—and maybe even ultimately better—of a song it is than, say, “Suspicious Minds,” which to this day remains one of my favorite Elvis hits. “In The Ghetto” is a patently melodramatic song, but ‘melodramatic’ may not exactly be the right word if it’s understood as having primarily pejorative connotations, like the word ‘sentimentality’ understood as a failure of feeling and, specifically in this case, tears.

I’ve played my share of other musician’s tear-jerkers, often story songs that make me want to cry even in the act of performing them (for instance, “Operator,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Brandy” or “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember”—to name just a few), but regardless of how calculated for effect, “In The Ghetto” might have been in its evocation of tears, the fact of the matter is that for me no other song has ever made me want to cry while (trying to) perform it as much as this song has. Certainly not, “Here Come Those Tears Again,” TEARS FOR FEARS or anything else MAC DAVIS has written—though if I ever perform some RICHARD THOMPSON ballads or “Patches” or “Angry All The Time” or “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in The Rain” (and many other country classics), I may change my ‘tune.’

But with “In The Ghetto,” I get so choked up that I can’t even finish the song. This will not do—although even this could be viewed as a ‘lesser evil’ compared to the other option, ‘mastering’ the song to the point of becoming numb to the tears and thus run the risk of a flippant, uninspired, performance. This gets me thinking about actors, and how a musician is rather like those ‘cats in Hollywood’ (as in JIMI HENDRIX’s famous quote.

Yet, I’m not just a performer in that sense, but also need to step back and play the part of the cultural critic in order to understand my purposes better (as from a distance). And “In The Ghetto” gets me thinking about things that are relevant beyond whether or not I end up playing it live for a few friends at a party, or working up a full-blown band version. Two broad socio-historical trends come to mind in particular: 1) the myth of ‘the bleeding heart liberal’ and 2) the integratioanlist ethos of the golden age of top 40 music (roughly 1956-1973) in this country, and how these two issues not only intersect with each other, but also how that intersection may illuminate much of the current situation with popular music and, more broadly, cultural and street-life.

Whatever the excesses of songs like “In The Ghetto” (or “He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother”), the paternalistic sentimentality, the NIMBYism, even the charges of hypocrisy that could be leveled at Elvis (who, after all, made millions because he was the ‘white guy who could sing like a black guy’), the song has an undeniable, and even potentially revolutionary, power. Yet, in general tear-jerkers disappeared from ‘progressive’ music around the time ‘liberal’ became increasingly a bad word, and besieged from both the right and the left (not without some justice), increasingly associated with the adjectives ‘knee-jerk’ (funny how ‘knee jerk’ reactionary or conservative didn’t become a common buzzword, when in reality that’s at least as true) as well as the phrase ‘bleeding heart’ as a pejorative term.

Perhaps (politicized) tears, like acoustic music and JAMES BROWN’s sweat, had simply gone out of fashion, no longer had persuasive power, as times hardened, and the notion of social progress became subsumed in the notion of technological progress. One could argue that this was because socio-political popular music itself had become less fashionable, that the emotional range of popular music was still as wide but that it just reflected the domestication, ‘maturation’ or the failure of the 1960s generation by the time Reagan got elected.

Yet this doesn’t account for the more ‘underground’ songs and sounds coming from rap and hip hop; while most of the ‘tear-jerkers’ on mainstream commercial and country radio stations in the past 25 years are apolitical, the most vital political music of this time (punk and rap) became more kick-ass and macho. The cultural segregation that occurred between ‘tear-jerkers’ and colder, or more macho, songs and playlists occurred virtually simultaneously with an increased cultural segregation between whites and blacks in popular music (though, strictly speaking, that’s a separate issue). While punk and rap bands for the most part didn’t want to blow their ‘street cred’ or coolness by crying, country music and to a lesser extent, ‘adult contemporary,’ largely took up the slack, even if too often it felt like muzak version of tears.

During the 1990s as the righteous anger and energy of much punk and hip-hop got co-opted in post-Nirvana grunge, shoegaze, etc., and the depoliticized stylings of post-NWA DR. DRE respectively, it didn’t mean that the pendulum has swung back toward politicized tears (unless you really think GREEN DAY ’s recent ‘smash’ “Wait Until September Ends’ qualifies, and you’re certainly entitled to your opinion).

In contemporary country, on the other hand, tears are not always domesticated or apolitical. For instance, DARRYL WORLEY’s “Have You Forgotten?” deploys some of contemporary country’s finest production techniques and musicians in the service of a pro-war hysteria that, like it or not, has had more persuasive emotional power than any anti-war song that was allowed to be played on the allegedly more progressive stations since 2001. Meanwhile, many of the ‘indie’ hipsters as well as rappers on the left, insofar as they write tearjerkers at all, continue to keep them separate from their political songs (insofar as they write those songs). In the process, the most progressive voices of the younger generations have consigned the power of tears to people on the right. While Worley’s brilliant propaganda move (co-written with WYNN VARBLE) may not make me cry, certainly the current state of the music industry does, and I think that has something to do with why “In The Ghetto” left me a slobbering tear fest just before I wrote this piece.