“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game…. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” – John Lennon
We seem to be living in what the Chinese curse calls “interesting times.” 2016 was one of the most turbulent years in modern American political history, and the turmoil attendant to the presidential election felt exacerbated by the deaths of some of popular music’s most important figures. The list still seems breathtaking: inimitable talents David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael; Eagles founder Glen Frey; Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner; both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP; songwriter extraordinaire Leonard Cohen; funk genius Maurice White…. I’ll stop here out of a kind of emotional fatigue. For one like me, it was at the least a trying year, one which left me feeling that I was losing my country to people possessed by greed and at the same time losing so many musicians whose work provided me with joy, solace, and inspiration. Yes, anyone and everyone have to die. Like many others, I suspect, I have questioned why it had to be these anyones and everyones. (My apologies to both you and ee cummings for the digression.)
Yet, as the French say, and rightly so, “La vie continue….”
It’s important, too, to remember those things which sustain us. For me those things are art, music, poetry. These provide, as I mentioned above, joy, solace, and inspiration. But they also provide, if one goes looking, answers. My questions, like those of many in these times, are about how to respond to actions by my government and fellow citizens which seem to me clearly designed to serve the few no matter what the cost is to the many. Music, because of my own history, provides me with answers most often.
When I go to music for answers, I always start with The Beatles. They are for me, to use that uniquely British term, first among equals among the myriad of musicians whose work I love. And I always seem to find answers.
* * * * *
One of the most common explanations offered for the election of Donald Trump, whose behaviors offer ample proof that he is a sexist, homophobic, xenophobic plutocrat, is that he appealed to a segment of the population who feels that their economic opportunities have disappeared. Unfortunately, the sympathy the plight of these individuals might inspire due to their economic misery is compromised by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic behaviors exhibited by swaths of them during political rallies.
In a real way, it seems to me, the 2016 election was the elevation to the highest office in our republic of a person with everything who behaves reprehensibly by a group of people struggling to have anything who are both driven by circumstance and coaxed by rhetoric to behave reprehensibly.
George Harrison’s song “Piggies” from the White Album (written during another year of tumult, 1968) seems a perfect description of this situation:
The song, a half jesting, half serious critique of capitalism/consumerism running amok is easy enough to understand. I should add that the moment of violence the song proposes in its bridge:
What they need’s a damn good whacking
was, in fact, a line Louise Harrison, George’s mother, suggested to him. When George was talking to his mother about the greed driving the behavior of those in the music business – and about the song he was writing concerning that – like the good Mum she was, she weighed in with her opinion, that a sound thrashing would do such people no harm, a line George liked so well he included it in his lyrics.
So how is “Piggies” speaking truth to me? Let’s look at the lyrics:
“Piggies”Have you seen the little piggies
Crawling in the dirt?
And for all the little piggies
Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around inHave you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in
In their styes with all their backing
They don’t care what goes on around
In their eyes there’s something lacking
What they need’s a damn good whacking
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies
Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner
With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon
Little piggies crawling in the dirt for whom life is getting worse; bigger piggies stirring up that dirt but who always have clean shirts – all clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon. A society consuming itself to death is not a pretty thing – what George feared nearly 50 years ago is even truer – and more troubling – in 2017.
The harpsichord instrumentation, pompous and “classy,” provides part of the song’s humor (remember Lennon’s advice above) and Lennon himself provides more (he provides the swinish sound effects). The result is a giggle of a singalong that conveys pointed social criticism.
As usual, though, George is subtly suggesting a message as well as offering a humorous critique. In this case, the message is more like a mantra we can use to guide us in our relations with our fellow humans:
Whatever your circumstances, try not to be a piggy.