REVIEW / It's too easy to trace the tracks of our tears

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD be interesting to know how many of those who phone the Action Line after The Years That Rocked the Planet (BBC 2) offer to bounce around in a rubber boat beneath oil-drums of toxic waste and how many just want to know where they can buy the CD (Pop goes Pollution], pounds 14.99 at all good record shops).

Cynical, I know, but then this calculated slip-streaming, tucking real concerns in behind the easy emotional extortion of old hits, does leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth.

What exactly do you feel when you see newsreel footage of children blinded at Bhopal and hear the Eurythmics' 'Here Comes the Rain Again'? Pity, yes, undoubtedly. But there are other feelings there too, buzzing round in a distracting way - 'Great record, I wonder where my copy went?', for example, or 'Wow, I'd forgotten that - I'd just moved into my new flat'.

The makers might argue that reminding people is quite enough, which is a fair claim. No sensible activist can be a purist. But even then there remains a problem with the laziness of the construction, the way records are used for a bad pun or just for their non-specific inflammation of the emotions.

Chris Isaak writes a lugubrious ballad ticking off his girlfriend ('What a wicked thing to do') but it serves fine for Saddam Hussein's destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells. Lou Reed hymns a New

York transsexual in 'Walk on the Wild Side', and the song is hijacked to provide the backing for a leopard that has managed to keep its coat out of a Bond Street shop. The conjunctions are meaningless, reinforcing the idea that the past is just a strip-mine for nostalgia.

There were exceptions to this, mostly brought about by the discovery of pop musicians that rich-screw-poor could be as useful a source of material as boy- meets-girl. When Louis Armstrong sings 'What a Wonderful World' over reports on the ravages of DDT the force of the combination can only be ironical. But by the time the Exxon Valdez leaks an Alaskan bay to death, popular musicians are getting specific - 'This ain't no technological breakdown,' sings Chris Rea, 'Oh no, this is the road to hell.'

I suppose you could take this as evidence of a new maturity in pop music but I'm not sure, myself. Listening to pop records almost always involves an indulgence of your emotions - it's why they are pop hits, after all. Songs that make you feel less satisfied about yourself don't have a history of big sales. Protest songs are no exception to this - they just offer the listener the satisfaction of being the sort of person who listens to protest songs, connoisseurs of their own fine anger. In its uneasy mix of pleasure and passion The Years That Rocked the Planet falls into the same trap.

There was a pop song in Private Investigations (BBC 1) too, a good example of the current habit of sticking vacuous musical stings into anything that moves. Quite how the lyric 'Splish, splash, we was having a bath' was supposed to improve a forceful little report on Tower Hamlet council flats with dangerous bathrooms, I can't imagine.

I would put good money on this being a 'suggestion' from the BBC crew responsible for helping ordinary people to make their own investigative reports. Certainly the women presenting the film seemed far too sensible to have done it on their own bat, being understandably preoccupied with the arrogant indifference of the council officer responsible and the fact that their children might be electrocuted as they bathed. I suppose we just have to be grateful that they weren't persuaded to dramatise the 'accident waiting to happen' while 'I'm All Shook Up' played in the background.