When was the last time that popular music made you think?
I mean really made you think about the state of the world and your place in it? The leaders you’ve elected? The choices you’ve made down to the products you buy?
The music of Roger Waters always makes me think. Like when I’m watching him in concert wear a mask of a pig snout and stalk the stage with a champagne glass while his band plays “Dogs.” Or when he examines the plight of the millions of refugees around the world in “The Last Refugee,” a song from his latest album Is This the Life We Really Want?
His songs evoke a time when popular music was a voice for dissent and dialogue about politics and social change – when the Rolling Stones’s “Street Fighting Man” was a rallying cry for Vietnam War protestors and Sly & the Family Stone eviscerated American values with There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
That time is now.
The current political and social unrest that grips the United States and the world has inspired mainstream artists to speak out through their music and actions. No matter what your taste in music is, it’s hard not to notice. For example:
- In 2016 Beyoncé departed from her usual songs about dancing and grinding to release Lemonade, a celebration of black sisterhood that contributed to the conversation about #BlackLivesMatter.
- In August, Pink released “What about Us,” with its accusations of betrayal from political leaders.
- Kendrick Lamar continues to confront American racism on albums such as To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn.
- (Update: on October 10, Eminem issued a clear and urgent protest against President Donald Trump with his fist-pumping rap freestyle, “The Storm,” which quickly went viral on social media.)
We’re living in an age of heightened activism. Although the groundswell around social justice issues such as #BlackLivesMatter has been happening over the past few years, the election of Donald Trump has unquestionably turned that activism into dissent for many artists (unless you happen to be Kid Rock or Ted Nugent).
According to The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, the first 100 days of the Trump administration inspired a bumper crop of protest music. As Cat Buckley of Billboard recently reported, 2017 is a year of a “brewing musical resistance” with President Donald Trump the focus of that resistance.
By embracing social and political themes through their music, musical activists are making Roger Waters more relevant than ever. He has been a voice of political and social confrontation for decades, as principal songwriter for Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. A common theme underpinning his music is how institutions such as government and organized religion dehumanize people and create walls that separate us from each other and even ourselves.
But Roger Waters does more than protest and question. He provides an answer, one that might sound surprising for someone who has been described as rock’s last angry man: break down walls by loving one another.
Is This the Life We Really Want?
Those themes are evident in Is This the Life We Really Want?, released in June 2017. The first rock album Waters has released since 1992, Is This the Life We Really Want? is a somber work that confronts Americans for accepting an erosion of their civil liberties, becoming indifferent to the presence of warfare and everyday violence, and becoming numbed by entertainment, among many other ills.
As he told Rolling Stone in August, Is This the Life We Really Want? is about “[Y]our government rewriting laws taking away most of your civil liberties . . . Is this how you want to live? And if it’s not, is there anything you can do about it?”
But the devaluation of civil liberties is hardly the only theme the album explores. For example, in the album’s title track, he suggests that fear of The Other contributes to the rise of totalitarianism and the election of a president he labels a “nincompoop”:
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
In “Smell the Roses,” he ruminates on the consequences of electing totalitarian leaders. He snarls, “There’s a mad dog pulling at his chain, a hint of danger in his eye” capable of unleashing violence upon the world. He personalizes the violence by referring to bombs of destruction labeled with the names of the listener (“This is the room where they make the explosives/Where they put your name on the bomb”) and then invites the listener to come to grips with “the life you have taken.”
These can difficult words to hear – confronting democracy for our choices and for our passive acceptance of those choices. But he never names Trump in his lyrics, which will undoubtedly protect the album from becoming dated. He also refuses to make the entire album about Trump. In songs such as “Déjà Vu,” he decries the prevalence of drone warfare, a tactic that the Obama Administration famously adopted in the fight against global terrorism.
As he told Simon Mayo of BBC Radio 2, “The second verse in “Déjà Vu” is about drone ‘warfare,’ which is a concept that is, by and large, accepted in the United States. The idea that you have robots flying all over the world killing people because you decided to kill them is so dystopian and weird that you would think that there would be an enormous outcry. But there isn’t.”
Us + Them Tour
Waters has dramatized his message powerfully during his Us + Them Tour, which kicked off in Kansas City in May and has continued throughout North America on its way to earning $25 million to date. He has taken aim at Donald Trump more overtly during the concert performances, such as projecting on to a massive screen renderings of Trump looking like a baby (among many other jarring images) while his band plays “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from Animals.
The song’s lyric “Hey You Whitehouse/Ha, Ha, charade you are” was written 40 years ago as a slam against British conservative moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, and yet during the concert performance of the song, Waters has reinterpreted the words conveniently for the present day by projecting an image of the White House onscreen.
“Go See Katy Perry”
Waters’s condemnation of Trump during the US + Them concerts has created controversy although perhaps the gesture has not terribly risky given Trump’s consistently low public approval ratings.
More controversial are his longstanding public condemnation of the Israeli government and support of the BDS movement, which accuses the government of Israel of violating international law and calls for political and economic pressure against the country. His actions and statements have inspired protests and criticism from detractors who have accused him of anti-Semitism. He has remained firm in his stance, condemning Radiohead for performing in Israel and urging critics of his Us + Them tour to “Go see Katy Perry. Watch the Kardashians. I don’t care.”
Through his recent actions and songs, Roger Waters provokes many questions, such as:
- If you voted for Trump, why?
- If you did not vote for Trump, what are you doing to resist?
- Regardless of how you voted, are you willing to engage in a dialogue with the other side?
- Are you willing to examine the reasons why Waters supports the BDS movement?
- Are Waters’s critics correct in labeling his beliefs as anti-Semitic? Why or why not? And how do those criticisms affect your support of his music?
Roger Waters, though, is not a voice crying in the wilderness, vainly raising questions without offering answers. For one thing, he has an audience, as the popularity of the Us + Them concert tour and the media coverage attest. How many concert goers are interested in his message versus wanting to hear him revive Pink Floyd standards is a valid question. But as always, Waters offers a choice: listen and question.
Finally, Roger Waters does offer answers. Yes, his is a voice of anger but also one of hope, love, and longing for human connection. After all, on The Wall, he asked
Hey you, out there on the road
Always doing what you’re told
Can you help me?
That visceral cry for human warmth pervades Is This the Life We Really Want? In “Bird in a Gale,” he evokes “Hey You,” plaintively asking, “Is there room in the story for me?” He dwells upon the beauty of a woman in the gentle “Wait for Her,” a prelude to “Part of Me Died,” in which a woman’s love makes the narrator shake off his numbness to the world’s evil.
In fact, he refers often to the transcendent power of love. At the end of a July concert I saw with my family in Chicago, Waters smiled to the audience and exclaimed, “I feel a lot of love onstage.” At a performance in Nashville, he was reported as saying, “There’s a lot of love in this room, and it means a great deal to us, in these very trying times. It’s great to see it, and there’s a lot of love all over this country. All it needs to do is to rise to the surface and spread out . . . and it will.”
Indeed, as his creative director Sean Evans told Newsday, “The message of the show is a message of love. Yes, he is throwing some eggs at the current administration. Yes, he is pointing out some of the world’s problems. But the message of the show is that it can be solved with love.”
Roger Waters denies being a hippie (as he said to Rolling Stone, “Flower power? Are you fucking kidding me? No way”). But his message is very much at home in the Summer of Love. Perhaps the most important question he inspires throughout his career is this: what is my role in breaking down walls by loving others, even those whose beliefs are radically different than mine?