I’m a music junkie – I always have been.
And if there’s one record that I go back to again and again it’s The Clash’s 1979 double-LP “London Calling,” an ambitious and sprawling work that’s widely hailed as one of the best rock albums of all time.
Over its 19 tracks, the four-piece led by the late Joe Strummer nimbly leaps across styles, from reggae and rockabilly, to funk and soul, even sharing the experience of staring out the tour bus window to see the exhaust towers of Three Mile Island go hurtling past.
I never fail to find something new lurking within this music, which is about explicitly political as it gets, sometimes to the point of unease. At no point did I ever find myself wishing that Strummer or co-frontman Mick Jones would simply shut up and sing some inoffensive ditty about girls and cars.
Yet, based on the firestorm surrounding remarks by the late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel last week, that now seems to be what we expect of our artists and public figures — whether they’re musicians or someone particularly skilled at throwing an oblong ball.
We’re paying for a service, to be entertained: Shut up and make with the entertainment and don’t say anything that might offend us or might run contrary to our political beliefs.
And it bears asking, at what point did our attitude about what we expect of our artists become so calcified and unyielding?
In case you missed it, Kimmel used his opening monologue on Monday night to tearfully recount how his son Billy, who was born with a congenital heart defect, underwent life-saving surgery that might not have been available to everyone just a few years ago.
Before 2014, he observed, “if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition.”
Kimmel, whose chosen profession has made him quite wealthy, sensibly suggested that “if your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something now, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?”
Kimmel framed his appeal as a bipartisan one in advance of a U.S. House vote Thursday aimed at repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Even so, conservatives pounced, scourging him for injecting politics into the sensitive matter of his child’s health.
“Sorry Jimmy Kimmel,” former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois wrote on Twitter. “Your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”
Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt, in column bearing the sensitive headline “Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep,” thoughtfully chimed in:
“After his slobbering wet kiss to federal bureaucracy, Mr. Kimmel then went squealing on about Obamacare and how insurance companies, the government and your neighbors should all be forced to pay for everybody else’s health care,” Hurt wrote.
What Hurt and other critics missed is that sometimes it takes a comedian, or an artist, to speak truth to power and to more fully focus our woefully short national attention span on the issues of the day.
Because here’s the thing: Good art often makes us uncomfortable. It should make us stop and think.
The work that endures is the work that provokes a strong reaction, whether that’s a record by The Clash, a great book, a provocative painting, or even a monologue by a late-night comedian.
When we stop thinking. When we stop being outraged. When we stop demanding answers, that’s when despots take over. Artists and critics, after all, are often among the first voices silenced by those regimes.
We’re not there – yet – in America. But when there’s a White House that works actively to delegitimize even the slightest criticism by branding it “fake news” or muses aloud about tinkering with libel laws, a healthy dose of vigilance is called for.
In every era of uncertainty, of unrest, artists have given voice to our insecurities, our fears, whether it was Woody Guthrie in the 1940s;Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan in the 1960s, Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s or Rage Against the Machine in the 1990s.
The Clash’s best work was forged in the upheaval of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. And there’s a case to be made that we’re at a similar point in our history, as the gap between haves and have-nots widens and the political chasm separating red and blue America grows ever deeper.
We need more people speaking up – not fewer.
So to those who would suggest that Kimmel shut up and tell jokes, I’d offer this:
Make us uncomfortable, Mr. Kimmel. Make us stop and think.