There’s the uncomfortable distinction in form, common to music as it is to journalism. You may be able to tell the truth, of course, sure, but you have to come at it sidewise. You have to sneak up on the readers put a little truth in their ear when they’re not paying attention. Like they don’t know what’s really going on. And hey, what do I know maybe people don’t really come to music or writing for the truth, they come for a kind of palliative, to hear the rhythms of what they already know flow into them easy and smooth. That’s okay, too. And maybe the very medium itself is going to keep us away from reality, right? What would it even mean to hear something real in music? To read something truly painful and difficult in the newspaper?
So first: something sideways.
John Legend in his latest outing, this time with the Roots. In fact, he asks the same question. “Compared to what?” covers Les McCann, and it certainly sounds updated, funky, tight, a song for the 21st Century no doubt. Maybe McCann was asked one time to put a little more real life into his music. The response, in any case, is fragmented, one could say impassioned, the lyrics strange, almost unsettling. He oscillates from this weird vision of the world to a disavowal of even that foray into describing it to you. As if in the end he’s not going to be represented to you.
It certainly isn’t Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” and I think that’s the point. If you’re dissatisfied because the lyrics never coalesce into a clear image or story line, then Legend/McCann has done his job. Why do you want that? What does it give to you? If it was the story of hard times or struggle, what would it mean to you to have that packaged, a single, so you could listen to it over and over again, and really feel pain, or something like it, because you had listened to this song, or this story and it made you sad. That would just be great, right?
Truth, consumption, music, narrative, commodity? Where does it all go?