About a year ago, I received a spate of sudden inquiries from music journalists about PJ Harvey.
It was weird. She had announced an experimental art project at Somerset House in London. People immediately noticed that her project seemed strongly similar to one my band Beauty Pill had done a couple of years earlier at Artisphere. People wanted to know how I felt about that.
The core concept of both projects was this: What if we turned the album creation and recording process into an art exhibit?
What if we made music recording viewable to the public, but not in a conventional “live album” manner? The premise of a conventional live album is that it’s a real-time recording of a concert. This would be something different: The viewer would be invited to observe a studio recording process unfold. All the things that happen in the recording studio—the creative decisions, band tension/arguments, the electrifying performances, the failed performances, breaking for pizza—would become accessible in a unique way. An exciting tenet might be advanced: Perhaps the creation of art could itself be seen as art.
I had called it “an exercise in radical transparency.” PJ Harvey used similar language in explaining her project. This similarity raised the notion that perhaps her project was somehow imitative of or inspired by Beauty Pill, my obscure, arty independent band from D.C. People wanted to know what I thought about that prospect.
My sense was that the similarity of her project was likely pure coincidence. She’s a revered U.K. rock star, why would she be taking cues from my little band?
I’d like to think it was a “great minds think alike” scenario. I am a longtime PJ Harvey fan. I do not consider us peers. I imagine you don’t either.
A year after her recording-in-a-museum project, I find people are once again asking me about PJ Harvey—for a different reason this time. Apparently, some of her new songs explicitly reference D.C. And one song in particular lays out a dark portrait of the poverty here in our nation’s capital.
“Community Of Hope” is the opening track on PJ Harvey’s new album. It borrows its title from the name of an outreach organization that has worked tirelessly in D.C. for four decades, trying to improve the lives of low-income, homeless, and struggling residents. The term Community of Hope uses on its site to describe these people is “underserved,” which is a plainly respectful, compassionate word. Community of Hope is, by any just measure, a great organization. They fight to provide resources and support for a vulnerable, suffering populace.
The song is a brisk, dry rocker that seems very much in the aesthetic mode of PJ Harvey’s previous album Let England Shake. That album was, by her own characterization, her first overtly political work. Politics (certainly semiotic feminism) is laced throughout her previous discography, but Let England Shake was a bold statement on a number of levels. Its sound was organic, unfettered, and uncompressed in a way that seemed almost confrontational. Everything was hand-played and cleanly presented. There was very little overt distortion or conspicuous studio manipulation. The songs retained PJ Harvey’s flare for myth and mystery (the reason she’s famous, people) but it’s a strikingly raw, unglamorous production. A brilliant work by my estimation.
My first impression: “Community Of Hope” seems to be cut from the same cloth as Let England Shake. Maybe this new album will be a “sequel” to an album I liked a lot? I’m excited about that. Artists like PJ Harvey (and Bob Dylan and David Bowie, with whom she shares some traits) shift so restlessly from period to period, it’s nice when they choose to stay in a terrain. “Sequel albums” allow the artist to refine themes and reinforce innovations of the previous album.
For me as a fan, the raw, plain, straightforward rock ’n’ roll sound of “Community Of Hope” is welcome. The words… that’s another story.
It’s the words, not the sound, of “Community Of Hope” that have generated the controversy. The song seems to bluntly paint a despairing portrait of blight and abject poverty. It’s a despair (maybe even disgust?) that seems to belie the title. So, OK, she is employing irony. Irony is a legitimate tool in protest songs—but is protest the intent of the song? If so, it’s just not clear where the protest is being directed, precisely.
The vibe that I get from the song—and song interpretations are always subjective, something none of us should forget here!—is she’s saying “This feels like a wasteland to me. And that is tragic.”
I am apparently not alone in deriving that message.
That message has caused some considerable hurt. Community Of Hope, the organization, has strongly rebuked the song “Community Of Hope.” The organization wrote PJ Harvey an open letter in response.
Community Of Hope the group would have strongly preferred that “Community Of Hope” the song paid tribute to the positive spirit of their mission and to the dignity and humanity of the underserved populace they endeavor to uplift.
I get that. You get that, right?
They feel reduced! Nobody likes to feel reduced.
These people work hard to make the world better. It’s dismaying to have a song call the people you care for “zombies.”
Oh, yes, did I mention that? PJ Harvey calls drug users zombies in this song. She’s certainly not the first songwriter to make that analogy. (There are many examples of it. It’s one of the most famous lines in one of the most famous Minor Threat songs.)
But this is art after all. And let’s be real: Junkies do resemble zombies sometimes. Sunken eyes, hollowed out features, staggering around. It’s sad. I’ve never been an addict myself, but I have witnessed it in close friends. It’s understandable that a poetic person might arrive at a zombie analogy.
It’s not a jubilant song. This much we know. But is it kind? This is less clear. There is a (deliberate?) blankness to the song. I think what we want is a sense that A) she has insight to share and B) her heart also goes out to these people. We want to know that PJ Harvey isn’t just being dark with no compassion or revelation. Because that would be mean. And we don’t want to think of her as mean.
Many of my friends take issue with the notion that PJ Harvey came to D.C., took a cursory tour of the struggling areas, and then flew home to base songs on those observations. This seems like a shallow, dismissive way for an artist to take on the deep and complex problem of urban poverty. My friends feel that PJ Harvey should have done deeper research, maybe gotten to know people, learned their stories.
This is a fair criticism, I suppose. But is it necessary for an artist to have intimacy with/authority about a thing to write about it?
My band has a song called “Steven And Tiwonge” about a trans couple who was persecuted by the Malawian government for their love. I think it’s a good song. I stand by it. It’s a sad song, it’s a positive song. I think there is humanity in it. But here’s the thing: It’s pure fiction. I’ve never been to Malawi!
I researched the story only by reading articles in the press. I made no attempt to contact Steven Monjeza or Tiwonge Chimbalanga. I wrote about their lives purely speculatively. The scenario described in the song… I made it up!
From a certain perspective, “Steven And Tiwonge” was outrageously presumptive. It’s a delicate and serious topic, but all I did was use my imagination. I didn’t even attempt to do what PJ Harvey did: observe the people I wrote about. I was inspired from afar.
But I believe people can feel that the anguish in “Steven And Tiwonge” is heartfelt. The fact that it’s a product of imagination does not make it less true.
This paradox bears repeating: The fact that fiction is a product of imagination does not make it less true.
Art may occasionally borrow the methods of inquiry from journalism or science, but art is never objective or neutral or strictly documentary. Is it fair or reasonable to hold an artist accountable to a reportage model? You can demand it all you want, but I don’t think you’re ever gonna get your way.
It is absolutely fair, however, to respond to how a piece of art makes you feel.
It’s absolutely fair that the people who work at Community Of Hope fiercely rebuked PJ Harvey’s song for how it made them feel. And who would argue that they don’t have greater authority about/command of the social issues? It’s tricky, because we don’t require songs to be factual.
“4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”— Really? I’m gonna need to verify that.
“There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline“— Really? That seems ill-advised.
“My anaconda don’t want none unless”— Really? It’s like an anaconda? Wow.
Everybody gets that these are imagistic works. When the beat is entrancing or the melody is beguiling, nobody demands verity from the lyrics. Most of the songs you love would be absurd if you read them literally. I’m stating the obvious here.
Is it possible PJ Harvey felt that simply writing about D.C. poverty, by expressing dismay, she would raise awareness? As a longtime fan, that’s what I hope she intended to do. But I truly don’t know.
If you want me to supply a conclusive judgment, I’m afraid I’m gonna disappoint. I will close with two thoughts:
1) If art is to be measured for its ability to provoke discussion, PJ Harvey may be winning this one.
2) If you’re upset by any of this, one smart remedy exists: Community Of Hope (the organization, not the song) has a donation page.
Chad Clark is a musician, producer, and artist in D.C. He fronts the band Beauty Pill.