The Bard of Barking (aka pop singer Billy Bragg) has hit the headlines again, this time because residents of the Dorset village where he lives have been bombarded with anonymous hate-mail urging them to kick him out of the village. Bragg, who to judge by the picture accompanying the article is starting to bear a worrying if perhaps appropriate resemblance to Arthur Scargill, blames a BNP supporter angered by his campaigning against everyone’s favourite group of fascist half-wits. Since that suggests at least one BNP member has now progressed far enough intellectually to master the art of writing, maybe it’s not all bad news. However, Bragg’s evident contempt for what he calls “the powerless ranting of a bitter individual” (and a coward at that) seems fair enough.
Certainly the letter writer is no intellectual giant since it’s not exactly clear how exactly he thinks the village is going to remove Bragg from the property he presumably owns and has every legal right to be in – marching on the house with flaming torches and pitchforks perhaps? However, as always when dealing with idiots, it’s frustrating a valid point utterly missed. The most devastating criticism one can make of Billy Bragg isn’t that he opposes the BNP. Nor is it that he’s a left-winger who campaigns for socialism whilst living in what looks like a very desirable house and being famous. No, the most damning thing about him is that he gets away with rotten songs sung badly because there are enough people who sympathise with his politics and probably also because he’s a likeable person (although never having met him personally, making that kind of judgment is admittedly perilous).
The average Billy Bragg song as I hear it seems to consist of painfully earnest lyrics with all the worthy appeal of a bowl of soggy museli bellowed in a nasal and strangulated voice. Like aural spinach, it’s listened to because it’s considered good for you, not because it’s considered enjoyable. As an acoustic guitar wielding singer, there are obviously a lot of comparisons to be made with earlier politically committed singers like Woody Guthrie, not least that you suspect they wouldn’t have got away with it without a big fat left-wing choir to preach to either. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts my dislike for protest singers and politically minded comedians too, and the point here is really the same. Popular music is there for entertainment. When it starts being for any other purpose, standards inevitably fall, since the audience will put up with a lack of entertainment because they approve of the message.
Whether he likes it or not, Billy Bragg is in the same business as Lady Gaga or Take That, not the same business as Nye Bevan, and that job is to cheer us up, not preach at us. He’s perfectly entitled to live where he likes free of harassment from wannabe storm troopers and express any opinion on any subject he likes. However “sound” you may think those opinions are, though, he’s not entitled to use them to cover for a basic failure to produce decent music.