Politically Incorrect: The Music of PJ Harvey and the Danger of Opinion

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Man Alive!. PJ Harvey. 2008. Web. Flickr.com.21 May. 2016.

It’s been a long time since I listened to the music of PJ Harvey with a near religious fervour, but still – over the years – she’s retained the quality of being one of the most powerful, honest and insightful musicians I’ve ever come across. From the first time I heard the threatening slither of her voice as she sang “I’ll make you lick my injuries” on Rid Of Me, I was sold on her unparalleled power, a kind that compares in no way to the type (so popular now) that can be easily disassembled and marketed piecemeal.

While, early in her career, Harvey won many accolades because of her unguarded innocence and throat-tightening female admissions (Dry and Rid Of Me), her course has changed a little in recent years. Past the introspection and literary-style storytelling of early albums, she’s left much of the personal-is-political approach behind and has broached broader issues on her most recent album and 2011’s Let England Shake, a critical exploration of her country’s dark history.

Harvey is the only British musician who’s managed to win the Mercury Music Prize twice since its inception in 1992, but in recent months she’s received more publicity on this side of the pond for a song on her latest release, The Hope Six Demolition Project. “The Community of Hope”, written about a neighbourhood called Ward 7 in Washington, D.C., has been seen as a critical take on the re-development of a community. As a result, a number of officials in Washington have critiqued Harvey, with the political consultant Chuck Thies saying that, “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.” Hehe. Sure, Chuck.

While there is irony in Thies one-dimensional assessment of Harvey’s musicianship, there is – in all likelihood – a deeper meaning present in Harvey’s song than might be prevalent in a seemingly negative set of lyrics. Since art is often meant to be an exploration as opposed to an assertation of truth, it makes one wonder – in such a hotbed of political correctness – what is it right to say? How familiar with the issues must we be in order to express anything at all that begs a question? After all, in the lyrics Harvey mentions a Homeland Security Base, God’s Deliverance Centre and a soon-to-be-built Wal-Mart, so perhaps she is not questioning hope so much as the cultural institutions it is defined by.

In a world where information is disseminated so quickly that it becomes complicated to wade through the morass, at least there is some recognition of what disturbs us; it is a relief, whatever flaws, that there are those who will not stay out of the fray for the sake of risking unpopular opinion. There is certainly a danger in having an opinion, and having educated and unchangeable ones that are easily expressed; however, it is becoming too easy in our culture to sit on the sidelines and be amused, and the now powerful opiate of amusement is oftentimes seen as an able replacement for awareness. An opinion, at least, has the power to start a conversation.

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