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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

02/03/2016

God Bless the Child
Billie Holiday

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

He just don’t worry ’bout nothin’
’Cause he’s got his own

Right after an event happens is possibly not the best time to use that event to make some sort of larger political statement, and that’s probably more true when someone dies. There have been many significant cultural figures who’ve died in the last little while, and I’ve been watching and wondering about how we discuss them. There have been many eulogies and conversations around each, ranging from praise to censure to humour, and sometimes a combination of all three.

It’s something I struggle with myself, especially when it concerns people who are all at once symbols and human beings. In my last column, I said I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about David Bowie, and that feeling has not yet gone away. On the one hand, he was a thoughtful and intelligent man who had interesting ideas and created a persona early in his career that made people feel more comfortable to be themselves. On the other hand, he was one of many male musicians in the 1970s who got away with doing wildly inappropriate and damaging things by virtue of the fact that he was a male musician and it was the 1970s. The trouble is, one does not discount the other. He was both of those things, and that’s something we all have to hold in tension.

The thing I find interesting about it, though, is how much more time I spent talking about how good he was than how bad he was. I dropped a not-insubstantial criticism into an article that was mostly about praising him. I didn’t think it appropriate to roundly criticize his behaviour when he had so recently passed.

Now, Alan Rickman’s death — that one was a little less complicated to navigate when it happened. Unlike the morally complex David Bowie, Alan Rickman was by all accounts a humble, talented and funny man who was devoted to his partner of 50 years, former Labour councillor Rima Horton. So we can just be sad about his passing and not worry about how we’re supposed to feel about it too much.

That said, when it comes to someone of cultural import dying, be it Alan Rickman or David Bowie or anyone else, we have to remember that they are at once cultural symbols and human beings. You may think I wrote that back to front because I emphasized symbolism rather than personhood, but rest assured, I did not. It is, again, something that must be held in tension.

When famed English musician and Marxist pot-stirrer Billy Bragg talked about the deaths of these two men, for example, he was quick to point out: “It’s not only the timing of his death and the fact that he too was 69 that links (Rickman) to David Bowie. Both were working-class kids from council estates who went to art school where they gained enough confidence in their own creativity that they were able to go on to find fame and fortune. Is it still possible for working class kids to realize their potential in such a way? The art schools are almost gone, those that survive now charge a fortune. The social mobility that Rickman and Bowie experienced is increasingly stifled.”

He wrote that the day of Rickman’s death. He was not shouted down, as some were when Bowie was criticized upon his death. That’s probably partly because the statement was not an indictment of either man’s character, but rather expressed concern about the current social and economic climate in Britain. My first reaction to it was irritation, though, as I thought it was inappropriate to use someone’s death as a clumsy segue to talking about class politics. My second reaction, though, was that he’s not wrong. Statistics and anecdotes alike bear out the fact that a good education is key to lifting oneself or one’s community out of poverty, and demographics bear out that across the western world, access to education is diminishing. With rising costs of living, prohibitively expensive tuition and an ever-increasing gap between have and have-not, we’re reverting to an older time when only the wealthy can pursue higher education. And as a result, it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to get ahead. Billie Holiday said, “God bless the child that’s got his own,” but hard work only takes you so far when people keep slamming doors shut in your face.

The truly frustrating thing about this is that by and large it’s the people who had access to free (or at least, affordable) higher education in the 1970s and 1980s who are putting the screws to my generation and the generation below mine. I am staggered by the lack of empathy on many of their parts. Equally, I’m staggered by the lack of foresight. Creating disenfranchised underclasses has rarely worked in favour of elites in the long term.

Talking about all of this abstractly, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that much. It’s when we tie things to individuals that they become real. Perhaps upon their deaths, talking about Bowie and Rickman as now-improbable success stories is the best way to really draw attention to these issues.

When we talk about a man’s clay feet, though, can we draw the same conclusion? Is Bowie’s death the right time to talk about statutory rape? The fact of the matter is that we forgive important men for what they do to women, or we ignore it, or we deny it happened. All of those things facilitate the kind of behaviour that some criticized in Bowie upon his death, and that sort of behaviour is probably not going to stop unless we take steps to change our culture. Yet, upon Bowie’s death, many said it was not the time to bring those things up. It was inappropriate. I myself thought it was inappropriate to get into it too much.

I have said “inappropriate” so very many times today. It’s a non-specific sort of censure saying you’re doing something wrong, and you should stop. It’s a word that comes up a lot, I’ve noticed, when someone’s pointing out an uncomfortable truth no one wants to discuss. “It’s not the right time,” we say, or we think. It’s probably never the appropriate time. It’s never comfortable to call out the worst aspects of ourselves and our culture. But if we’re honest, it’s inappropriate not to.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings