Mar. 1, 2017: ...Aren't Selling This Year
This is probably a stretch: on Sunday I was listening to Willie Nelson's 1973 LP Shotgun Willie while washing what had been a carefully-stacked mound of dirty dishes. I've listened to this album countless times since first hearing it circa 2013, as I think it's not only Nelson's all-time best but also one of the top few greatest country music albums ever recorded. In the past I've often been struck by track three, "Sad Songs and Waltzes," and how it so simply condemns the creative and emotional constraints put upon artists by the music the industry. In the song—a slow, somber tune in waltz time—Nelson tells a former flame that he wants to write a song expressing his anger and sadness toward her, but he can't because "sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year." He's a little whiny and vindictive at times, yet the idea of being stifled in these ways by musical market trends has always made me think.
And, having read a handful of things by Mark Fisher since his devastating passing last month, I thought, while listening to Shotgun Willie the other day, that "Sad Songs and Waltzes" does a pretty good job of illustrating and offering a critique of what Fisher termed "capitalist realism" as well as its effects on our psyches. Fisher often suggested—in my mind, rightly so—that depression and other mental health issues were too often cast off as chemical or trauma-related problems, and not considered as social or political ones. Chemical imbalances and trauma do cause mental health issues—but the conditions of late capitalism (economic crashes, media saturation, pharmaceutical overreach) can as well, Fisher said, hence the increasing number of mental health cases (and "cures") in the last few decades.
In "Sad Songs and Waltzes," Nelson is a victim of the new music industry, something that had changed (and expanded) rapidly in the previous ten or so years. He can't express what he wants because his expression falls outside the "reality" that capitalism has presented to him. Even though the song, in a knowingly rebellious turn, is ultimately both sad and a waltz, he spends most of it prevaricating, discussing form and commercial appeal and not expressing his actual feelings, what he actually wants to say. How does late capitalism guide artistic as well as emotional expression, and how can we work against (or outside of) its "realistic" boundaries? Perhaps "Sad Songs and Waltzes" offers a glimpse—a starting point—into an effective methodology. And, perhaps this is giving Nelson too much credit; this is definitely not giving Fisher's writings their due diligence. But, as someone who likes both Nelson's and Fisher's work an awful lot, I've been thinking about this connection—and, while I'm leaving it at this for now, it's something I may try to flesh out later on.
Click here to return to the Notes section.