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When Politics Trumps Music

Why I Think the Political Obsessions of Roger Waters Are Damaging His Music and Pink Floyd's Legacy

Roger Waters has not so subtle feelings about the President.

I have been a Pink Floyd fan since one snowy day when a neighbor introduced me to the "Dark Side of the Rainbow" effect. I was greatly amused by the effect of watching The Wizard of Oz with Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack; the more important thing, however, was that I instantly fell in love with the album and quickly became a major fan of Pink Floyd's music.

Soon I was listening to The Wall and watching the 1982 film based on it. I learned to play drums  by watching videos of Nick Mason. I've been recorded performing "Wish You Were Here: several times, and "Comfortably Numb" is a regular feature in my band's setlist. (I am the drummer/vocalist for Philadelphia area group Lonely at the Top.)

Given my Floyd fandom, I'm surprised to find myself quite disillusioned with one Roger Waters, their former chief conceptual leader and songwriter. I feel that his recent activities in political advocacy, both on stage and record have started to become more important than his music to him.

Not that overt political overtones are a new feature of his music. Most Floyd albums have some political subtext. The Wall was perhaps the most political of the rock-era albums that could validly be called mega-hits.  And by his final album with Pink Floyd, The Final Cut, Waters went all-in on a major political message—perhaps to the point of compromising the music for which his band was known. The Final Cut (subtitled "A Requiem for the Postwar Dream") is a challenging  listen, with its heavy-handed references to political leaders and the injustice of wars. Waters isn't afraid to name names and describe current events (like the Falklands conflict), so the 1983 album's lyrical content is quite dated for someone who wasn't even born at the time.

Unlike the earlier Floyd albums, Waters reportedly brought The Final Cut to the other band members as pretty much a finished work. In fact, David Gilmour was said to have reluctantly played on it, and by this time Richard Wright, whose keyboard work helped bring Dark Side to the next level, was out as a band member and absent from The Final Cut. Three recording-less years later, Waters would leave Pink Floyd himself.

To me, much of Waters's subsequent solo work can be extremely difficult to listen to, partly because of the absence of Mason, Wright, and Gilmour's influence—Gilmour's distinctive guitar and voice are particularly missed.  But too often I feel like I'm being relentlessly hit with overt social commentary and political themes with very little melody.

It's not that I'm totally opposed to Waters expressing political views; I in fact agree with more of his views than I oppose, and I have no problem with artists making strong political statements. It's cool that Bruce Springsteen sings for the working class and supports whatever Democratic candidate needs his help. I love Randy Newman's cynical political songs and I like Jackson Browne in spite of his overly earnest stabs at political anthems. I admire Neil Young's ardent, if inconsistent, revelations of his political leanings. But Waters is the one who seems to have gone a bit far.

My disillusionment with Waters started in 2012 when I saw his The Wall Live Tour. I really enjoyed the show and at the time felt fine about everything. On the song "Goodbye Blue Sky" there was an animation depicting various religious symbols (crosses, Stars of David, The Islamic crescent) and corporate symbols depicted as bombs, suggesting that religious and corporate powers can be destructive. I understood the message and didn't think much about it, partly because for the most part I agreed with the message, but mostly because the show did not disappoint musically or theatrically.

A year or so later I read that someone had been offended by the appearance of the Star of David on Waters signature flying pig. I felt at the time that this was an unfair criticism because the pig featured  a number of religious symbols other than the star. It seemed, to me, to be an equal-opportunity offending pig.

After The Wall Live Tour, however, Waters started using his social media to talk about the West Bank, Israeli Occupation, and how bad conditions are for Palestinians. I could sympathize with his concerns, but increasingly as Waters became increasingly strident on the subject, he was charged with being anti-Semitic in many quarters. Waters himself denied this, claiming he only wanted to see peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians, pointing out that his father did indeed die fighting the Nazis in World War II and he has a Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons. Now, I don't believe Waters is an anti-Semite, but I do think his self-righteous attitude did not help his case. There is a complexity to the situation that became more and more lost in Waters's pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

Still, I respected his right to his views and right to advocate, even though I now had a key disagreement with what seemed to now be more crusade than just a passion. But with the emergence of nationalist movements in Europe—embodied in the Brexit vote and especially the U.S. election of Donald Trump—Waters planned his next tour, called "Us + Them" after his classic collaboration with keyboardist Richard Wright, while turning up the political content—and anger—quite severely. For example, the entirety of the song "Pigs" in the concert is fully dedicated to visually and verbally condemning U.S. President Donald Trump. (Waters had telegraphed his feelings on Trump in his most recent solo album, Is This the Life We Really Want.) While I personally agree with his views on Trump (and a glance at any late night show exemplifies that Trump-bashing is not a career-killing tendency right now), I feel the overly-political and not-so subtle messages have become more important than the music in the Waters show.

I am by no means one of those people who don't think artists should not be free to express themselves. I've heard Bruce Springsteen roasted alive by people who resent his advocacy of Barack Obama and the Clintons, the "shut up and play" crowd. But undoubtedly, a lot of conservatives go see the boss. He plays it straight—while the songs might have liberal overtones, the setting and dedicated work of the E-Street Band are all about the music.

The most high-profile political tour in recent years probably came when Neil Young recruited Crosby, Stills, and Nash for a "Let's Impeach the President" tour. I know people who walked out on that show and Waters has lost sponsorships—and probably fans. That's his right to do, but the fact I can't listen to Dark Side of the Moon without thinking about Waters and his political agenda, particularly regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, is disheartening. Music can be used to convey messages, but it should also be an escape from our bitterly divided world  once in a while.

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