Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Green Disease

(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)
There is an interesting juxtaposition between the music and subject matter of Green Disease. The music isn’t quite danceable but it is somewhat lighthearted, almost as if the only way to respond to the mess that’s been made of our world is to say ‘fuck it’. But it is a disingenuous dismissal and the song knows it, since underneath the jaunty melody there are some discordant guitar parts showing that there is something clearly wrong underneath the surface (that sounds more than a little like parts of Help Help, anticipating that song nicely, especially during the verses). I would like the discordant part of the song to be a little more prominent. It’s too buried, and they go for a similar affect with a lot more success in World Wide Suicide.

Lyrically the song falls short as well—thematically it’s right on the money but the lyrics don’t quite manage the weight they’ve been asked to bear. Part of the problem is that the song comes a bit too late in the record. Most of the album is a response to post 9-11/post Bush alienation, and yet it isn’t until the 10th song on the record that they finally begin to address the reasons WHY they feel that alienation (it doesn’t help that the Green Disease—Help Help—Bu$hleaguer stretch is arguably the weakest three song block on the record).  

The title itself isn’t all that ambiguous, but using Green Disease instead of Greed Disease was a nice touch, unfortunately ruined by the immature G-R-E-E-D lyrical beginning, and the utter lack of enthusiasm with which Eddie delivers it probably shows he’s not too happy with the lyric either. It’s too obvious, which is one of Eddie’s difficulties as a political lyricist. Because he feels so passionately he has trouble moving past superficial lyrics, since the superficiality/cliché is felt by him as a living truth. The problem is just greed, and sometimes the simple answers are the right ones, but Eddie’s lyrical talent is with misdirection, metaphor, and making emotional abstractions accessible and immediate. He often runs into trouble when he tries to be direct.

So the song is about greed, although this can be taken in a couple of different directions. One is an indictment of a morally vacuous acquisitive culture made by political philosopher Leo Strauss (others have made this argument obviously, but I love his phrase) –the problem with Americans is that they spend their lives in “the joyless pursuit of joy”—the way in which we spend our lives chasing happiness instead of being happy (see soon forget). But other than some intimations Eddie doesn’t really go in that direction. After all, the problem there isn’t greed—the problem is a limited and enervated understanding of happiness.

Instead he makes the more traditional critique—the problem is the desire for money---both because money means power (and the people who pursue it this way rarely have the best interests of others at heart) and by making money and acquisition an end, the other values that are so important to us (love, community, solidarity—the causes of lasting happiness) drop out. Whatever cannot be quantified is useless, and has no value. For instance, we’ve spent the last 8 years measuring the comparative well being of America by its GDP—how much the aggregate wealth of the country has increased. Of no concern is either the distribution of that wealth (it isn’t greed, or is less so, if we all benefit) or other non-monetary indicators of happiness (health, leisure time, stable homes, a clean environment). If it isn’t green it has no value. If it doesn’t generate more green it is a waste of time. 

But that’s only part of the problem. It’s not simply that some people have this priority. Attached to this worldview was a ruthlessly destructive public policy that told us that anything we do collectively as a people is doomed to fail, that responsibility for each other was something private, that we are ultimately isolated and alone. I still have a pamphlet I got from the government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which gives a prophetic air to the the ‘tell the captain this boat’s not safe and we’re drowning lyric) saying that the only thing to do in case of flooding is make sure you have flood insurance. That’s it. Don’t look to your state, because they will not help you, and if they have their way, they will ensure that they cannot help you, that our capacity to envision a world of collective responsibility and collective security is being taken away from us.  

That’s the real tragedy of Green Disease—not that we have a world full of greedy people, but that they are working to ensure that greed becomes more than a choice. If given their way our right to live in a world defined by compassion and cooperation is taken from us, and that we’re sundered from each other and thrust back into a state of nature where we’re engaged in a day to day struggle for survival where we cannot depend on anyone other than ourselves, a war of all against all and a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes). At least for those of us on the bottom. The people at the top, the ones who are (temporarily) ahead might live lives that are materially comfortable, but only at the cost of their humanity.

 This is, I think, what Eddie is trying to get at with Green Disease, but in the end it lacks the immediacy of a World Wide Suicide, the bite of a Comatose or a Do the Evolution, the righteousness of Grievance, the sympathy of Insignificance, or the wisdom of Marker. Green Disease is certainly an earnest song, but in the end (because of the music perhaps) it is a little too petulant and maybe a little too obvious to pull it off.
Can't Keep 
Save You  
Love Boat Captain  
 I Am Mine  
Thumbing My Way  
You Are  
Get Right  
Green Disease  
Help Help  
1/2 Full  
All Or None