Nick Cave shares advice on battling loss and suffering from grief
(Credit: Henry W. Laurisch)

Nick Cave explains why he avoids writing protest songs

At a time when political outrage has reached a boiling point, Nick Cave has been reflecting on why his music tends to avoid overtly strong protest messages.

While millions of people line the streets across the globe in protest of the institutional racism within society, a movement which has been sparked by the recent death of George Floyd, some musicians have responded with material with a strong political leaning.

Although public marching protests have existed for decades, the Arab Spring rising of the early 2000s sparked a new viewpoint on the ability to enact change. The Black Lives Matter movement has reopened up a longstanding crisis which still tackles the same issues society faced 50 years ago and beyond.

With protests from New York to London spreading the same message, the world is also witnessing uprisings in varying degrees with their own important messages. In Hong Kong the public are fighting government officials against a new law that would try Hong Kong residents in mainland China, the people of the Philippines are fighting a new anti-terror bill, Brazilians are fighting against severe police brutality and the residents of Chile are protesting a major food shortage. For years music and the artists responsible for the music have echoed society, commentating on themes of struggle and offering a rallying cry. From Bob Dylan to Kendrick Lamar. From Yoko Ono to Bob Marley and the Wailers. Nick Cave though, has resisted this urge.

Addressing a question from a fan as part of his Red Hand File forum, Cave offered an explanation for his decision to avoid the concept of a protest anthem. “Songs with political agendas inhabit a different space,” Cave began, “They have little patience for nuance, neutrality or impartiality. Their aim is to get the message across in as clear and persuasive a manner as possible. There can be great value in these sorts of songs, but they are usually born from a particular combination of rigidity and zealousness, which I personally do not possess. My songs seem to be resistant to fixed, inflexible points of view. They have, as you say, a concern for common, non-hierarchical suffering. They are not in the business of saving the world; rather they are in the business of saving the soul of the world…

“I guess I could write a protest song, but I think I would, in the end, feel compromised in doing so, not because there aren’t things I am fundamentally opposed to — there are — but because I would be using my particular talents to deal with something I consider to be morally obvious. Personally, I have little inclination to do that. It’s just not what I do.”

Read Nick Cave’s response in full via the Red Hand Files website or view it, below.

Dear JP,

Perhaps the thing you enjoy about my songs is that they are conflicted, and often deal in uncertainties and ambiguities. My better songs seem to be engaged in an interior struggle between opposing outlooks or states of mind. They rarely settle on anything. My songs sit in that liminal space between decided points of view.

Songs with political agendas inhabit a different space. They have little patience for nuance, neutrality or impartiality. Their aim is to get the message across in as clear and persuasive a manner as possible. There can be great value in these sorts of songs, but they are usually born from a particular combination of rigidity and zealousness, which I personally do not possess. My songs seem to be resistant to fixed, inflexible points of view. They have, as you say, a concern for common, non-hierarchical suffering. They are not in the business of saving the world; rather they are in the business of saving the soul of the world.

Sometimes my songs speak into the current situation and sometimes they do not. I am mostly happy with that. I am happy that people can come to my songs and — even though they may be challenging or confronting — they do not preach and do not divide, and are offered to everyone, without exception.

I have very little control over what songs I write. They are constructed, incrementally, in the smallest of ways, the greater meaning revealing itself after the fact. They are often slippery, amorphous things, with unclear trajectories — position-free attempts at understanding the mysteries of the heart. I guess I could write a protest song, but I think I would, in the end, feel compromised in doing so, not because there aren’t things I am fundamentally opposed to — there are — but because I would be using my particular talents to deal with something I consider to be morally obvious. Personally, I have little inclination to do that. It’s just not what I do.

Love, Nick

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