Won’t get fooled again

Malta does ‘look just the same’ despite the change. The sentiment is perhaps best expressed by a car-sticker that seems to have become popular over the past few days: 'PL PN Żviluppaturi Qażzistuna' ['PL PN Developers We're Sick of You']

In certain aspects, Malta does ‘look just the same’ despite the change
In certain aspects, Malta does ‘look just the same’ despite the change

It’s a pity that rock music doesn’t attract the same level of attention from academia as poetry, drama, and all the supposedly ‘serious’ branches of literary endeavour.  

Admittedly this is starting to change. The University of Nottingham, for instance, recently launched an undergraduate degree in ‘Heavy Metal Studies’. The idea was met with smirks and eye-rolls in academic circles… though most of the ones ‘rolling their eyes’ had clearly never listened to a heavy metal album in their lives (how many of them, for instance, would recognise the veiled allusion to a certain Velvet Underground lyric in the above sentence? There, told you.) 

Elsewhere, individual songwriters such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen have also been included in academic syllabi, mostly alongside Beat generation poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson. I myself once submitted an assignment for an English lit credit about Peter Gabriel’s literary influences for early Genesis albums (most of his lyrics turned out to be borrowed from TS Eliot or Ezra Pound.)

Even here in Malta, the idea that a rock or pop song might have some literary merit is no longer sneezed at out of hand. The University even offers a Masters degree in ‘pop culture’… not limited to pop music, of course, but still: the entire concept is something that would have been simply inconceivable back in my own undergraduate days.

Ever so slowly, it seems the academic world is beginning to acknowledge that ‘popular music’, just like any other art-form, will invariably tell us something about the age that produced it. Song lyrics might rarely compete with the greatest literature of all time… but on one level, there is no real difference between a pop song and the Opus Magnus of any canonical author. Both will have been influenced, however remotely, by the Zeitgeist of the moment. Both will invariably reflect the deeper preoccupations of the contemporary generation.

Shakespeare, for instance, was the product of an age steeped in civil violence. The England he lived and wrote in was eminently conscious of self-destructive forces lurking beneath the surface of an uneasy peace. Unsurprisingly, then, nearly all Shakespeare’s plays deal directly or indirectly with the theme of civil war. 

Hundreds of years later, Jim Morrison would similarly reflect the paranoia and sense futility of his own age, in songs such as ‘The End’ and albums such as ‘American Prayer’. The social and political angst of 1970s Britain would find better expression in The Sex Pistols than in anything written by the poet laureate of the time.  Meanwhile, anyone trying to make sense of ‘Brexit’ today would surely appreciate the prophetic lyrics of The Smiths song ‘Panic’, written against the backdrop of the turbulent 1980s. 

In both cases – rock song and canonical text – the litmus test for academic appreciation remains the same. Lifted out of their respective contexts… how relevant is the expressed idea to today’s reality?

Speaking of prophetic lyrics (and the inspiration for this article), consider the following excerpt from The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, written by Pete Townsend in the 1970s:

“The change, it had to come / We knew it all along / We were liberated from the fold, that's all / And the world looks just the same / And history ain't changed / 'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war…”

Lyrically, it might not stand up to comparison with Shakespeare (ah, but could Shakespeare play the guitar as well as Pete Townsend? THAT is the question…) Yet the sentiment is something that could easily have been spoken by Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, or the Fool in King Lear. Inherent in those lines is a realisation of the futility of an entire political system. ‘History ain’t changed’ is, in fact, a singularly Shakespearean motif.

In both cases – rock song and canonical text – the litmus test for academic appreciation remains the same. Lifted out of their respective contexts… how relevant is the expressed idea to today’s reality? Can the work transcend its immediate inspiration, and reflect realities that didn’t even exist at the time of its creation? Or is it more like the doomed DJ in ‘Panic’: whose music tells Morrissey ‘nothing to [him] about [his] life’?

Listen to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ today, and you might be forgiven for thinking it was written last week instead of 40 years ago. Obviously, Townsend wasn’t thinking about today’s reality – still less about today’s reality in Malta - but those lyrics still apply with uncanny precision to everything that is going on in the world right now.

I’ll leave it up to you to apply them to the broader palette of 21st century international politics – suffice it to say that I am reminded of Barack Obama’s promises of ‘change’ in 2008, and how little the world has actually changed since then. 

As for the local applicability, I’ll limit myself to only one example out of literally thousands. How much has Malta’s attitude towards the environment and urban planning changed, since the election of a Labour government in 2013?

Let’s look at those lyrics again.

‘The change, it had to come’. Oh, yes, it had to. Labour was elected after almost 25 uninterrupted years of Nationalist rule. As such, Muscat’s landslide victory was more attributable to the PN’s unpopularity than his own charisma. I reckon even an empty chair would have defeated Gonzi in 2013, though perhaps by a lesser margin. The tide of change was clearly unstoppable.

‘We were liberated from the fold, that’s all’. An elaboration of the previous conceit. It was to free itself from the incumbent administration that such a huge majority voted Labour… and not necessarily out of any firm belief in the incoming government.

‘And the world looks just the same’. OK, here we must narrow down the focus slightly. There are areas where Labour’s administration has been markedly different from the PN’s. Its attitudes towards civil liberties did indeed represent a much-needed change of direction, from a government that opposed divorce in 2011, and actively pursued the imprisonment of a novelist for ‘obscenity’.

But in certain aspects, Malta does ‘look just the same’ despite the change. The sentiment is perhaps best expressed by a car-sticker that seems to have become popular over the past few days: 'PL PN Żviluppaturi Qażzistuna' ['PL PN Developers We're Sick of You']

And rightly are they sickened. Consider for a moment the process whereby the Planning Authority greenlighted the recent permits for the Townsquare project in Sliema and the four towers in Mriehel. Compare it to the process whereby Fort Cambridge (to name but one) was approved in 2010.

In both cases, the Planning Authority – formerly ‘MEPA’: another case where the name has changed, but not the reality – simply ignored all objections based on the long-term environmental and infrastructural impact, as well as the short-term concerns with a deterioration of the residents’ quality of life. Ironically, it is to safeguard those very areas that the PA even exists at all: after all, what good is a planning authority, if it fails to even discuss concerns with the environment, infrastructure and quality of life? 

The one thing that won’t change is the Dubai-ification. Truth be told, it can’t change… not unless the entire political system changes with it

Yet despite the promise of a change in this very department, we have succeeded only in perpetuating the same vicious cycle. Another government, a different bunch of smiley faces – but still the same interminable pattern of developers always getting what they want, when they want it… because otherwise, the flow of money directly into the parties’ coffers would instantly cease. 

Here, the last line of the above lyric becomes particularly poignant. Replace ‘war’ with ‘election’ – which is easy enough, all things considered – and ‘banners’ with ‘slogans’, and it might be a direct commentary on this very situation. 

The banners have certainly changed, from the time when Labour protested against the ODZ extension in 2006. Likewise, the PN now unfurls the anti-‘Dubai-fication’ banners, when the PN had started that process itself. The banners will no doubt change again… and again… and again… 

But the one thing that won’t change is the Dubai-ification. Truth be told, it can’t change… not unless the entire political system changes with it. Of course the PA keeps approving grotesquely inappropriate development projects, regardless of who’s in government, and regardless of public opposition. Both parties are still enthralled to the construction lobby, and depend on the generosity of developers for their own survival. And whichever one is in government still has its finger permanently on the red button: it enjoys complete control over every aspect of the planning process, due to its automatic majority on the PA board.

Even worse, Malta as a whole has simply never managed to wean itself from a deluded belief that ‘construction’ – of anything at all, regardless of size or impact – is a primary motor of the economy, and therefore must be facilitated at every turn. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is produced to debunk this myth: everything, including the Planning Authority itself, has been built on those foundations. 

That is why objectors are silenced at PA meetings; that is why conflicting opinions are invariably sidelined or ignored. The process does not concern itself with planning; it concerns itself only with the orders handed down from above.

Sadly, about the only aspect of The Who’s song that doesn’t quite fit the equation is the title. I, for one, will certainly never be fooled again by blatantly opportunistic promises of change. And whoever concocted those stickers probably won’t either. 

But Malta as a whole? Oh, we’ll be fooled again, all right. And again, and again, and again…

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