Ember Swift's pale protest folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 8, 2003) – About two-thirds of the way through Ember Swift’s show at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, bassist/backup singer Lyndell Montgomery took center stage for a political, spoken-word rap that represented some that was right but mostly what was wrong with Swift’s performance. Granted, it’s easy to make too much out of what was basically a sideshow to the main event, but Montgomery’s politically-correct cheerleading was one of the audience highlights of the night, and it encapsulated in a clear, direct way the limitations of Swift’s approach.

Instead of being the astute, pointed bit of political protest that it aspired to be, Montgomery’s rap – and I use the word loosely, as in no way did it contain the rhythmic cadences and fluent wordplay of what is normally called rap – was nothing more or less than a laundry list of p.c. causes. She talked about white guilt and intoned a confused litany of “victims” – black, Latino, Asian, native American – before suddenly jumping to “the Middle East,” and “Cuba,” before saying something about President Bush starting World War III while Tony Blair serviced him sexually.

This was radical politics for dummies – a plague that infects a lot of what passes for political protest music these days. The problem is not the political ideology – you can agree or disagree with what the singer was saying. But what was so offensive was the stupidity and artlessness with which it was said. There is such a rich tradition of folk protest on which to build, going from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Tom Paxton to the Clash to Steve Earle and beyond. Swift seems utterly out of touch with this tradition, in which songwriters used realistic or surrealistic narratives in songs like “Pastures of Plenty,” “Masters of War” and “Career Opportunities,” to make their socio-political points.

Swift’s own songs, like Montgomery’s rant, instead favored the most simple-minded liberal verities. Swift railed against “superficiality, sitcoms, shopping malls and SUVs” in one, substituting a catalog of things she knows her audience is going to hate for making an original point. Even her sex- and love-based songs fell victim to the same artlessness. The best she could come up with in a song that she said was “about making things last” was “I want you to kiss me as if we’ve never kissed before,” which echoed an earlier song in which she sang, “I just wanted to kiss you often/Watch your features soften.”

What’s really too bad about all of this is that Swift has a lot going for. She has absorbed a tremendous amount of Ani DiFranco’s style and approach, down to the power trio arrangements – guitar, bass, drums – and the funk and jazz foundations of the folk songs. Her trio was tight and powerful, and she was an effective vocalist and a generous frontwoman who knew exactly how to connect with her fervent followers.

At one point in her show, Swift complained that we are in danger of having our civil liberties taken away. If the best this generation of folk-protest singers can do is to preach to the converted, telling them and selling them what they already know without saying anything to challenge them or to think for themselves, then in the end, when those civil liberties are taken away – including the precious freedom of speech that allows them to sing their so-called political protest songs – nothing will actually be lost.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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