Lately, in the face of a global protest movement over racism and police brutality, we’ve been hearing a lot of protest songs from musicians who aren’t generally considered to be outwardly political. And perhaps some of the artists who aren’t writing protest songs are feeling compelled to explain, or maybe to internally explore, why that particular form isn’t a part of their musical vocabularies.
Recently, Nick Cave has been answering fans’ questions in his Red Hand Files newsletter, offering up thoughtful and complex responses to questions that can be difficult. He’s addressed matters at least related to politics, like whether he’ll change old lyrics now widely deemed problematic, or how he deals with Morrissey’s turns towards racist right-wing political causes. In the most recent Red Hand Files, Cave speaks to a fan who asks whether he ever wishes his own music had been more politically outspoken.
Politics exist in Nick Cave’s music, the same way politics exist in everything. You can dig deep into things like the way the Bad Seeds’ “The Mercy Seat” deals with the death penalty, or the way the Bad Seeds’ version of “Stagger Lee” handles race and sexuality. But it’s true that Cave’s music tends to be internal rather than external, and he gives a layered response to the question.
Songs with political agendas inhabit a different space. 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. 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…
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.
You can read Cave’s full response here.