Passive/Aggressive

Brad Mehldau – The Prophet is a Fool

English Feature June 24 2019
Brad Mehldau “Finding Gabriel”

By Macon Holt

This video/track/essay/statement recently released by the critically acclaimed jazz master Brad Mehldau is infuriating. Not least because the instrumental musical elements of “The Prophet is a Fool” do seem to accurately enunciate something of the violence, anxiety, and pseudo-stability of the contemporary moment in a way that the discursive and representational components fail to even as they underline the point. The fuzzy aggressive bass set against the crisp timbre of the piano chords dripping with dissonance rumble on at a frenetic pace that perfectly captures the horror, the melancholy and the insatiability of the present.

There is something utterly disorienting about this arrangement as it takes us through registers of panic, terror, pain, and the intoxicating thrill of power. The music seems to shift perspective from that of a terrified art world “liberal” to that of those mourning of the tragedies visited upon oppressed peoples, to that of those in the midst of the rush of a political power fantasy come true. In this soundscape, there are many things to be afraid of and many more that could corrupt your desires rendering them fascist. Beyond this, my only critiques of the music itself seem trivial. In an odd misstep on what is an otherwise technically stunning record, I would say the reverb on the brass is a little too obvious when set against the gorgeously blurry synths. Also there may be a smidge too much in the way of resolution with final chord. Perhaps this is intended to produce a certain frightening dissonance with the ominous final line, “they’re coming back”, but something about the timing of makes it difficult for me to be sure of this and thus unable to declare that Mehldau knew what he was after.

This takes us to the real problem with “The Prophet is a Fool”; the intelligence and subtlety of the track is evacuated from it through the inclusion of muddled semiotic signposts. Set against chants of “BUILD THAT WALL” and narration that makes it sound more like a zombie movie than a political intervention, the complexity of the piece is made to fit a reductive narrative, which casts Mehldau as something of seer able to unveil the threat of the false prophet, Trump. At the same time, however, he is incapable of saving himself, his daughter (companion?) or anyone from the horror he sees so clearly. And yet, despite this clarity, this intervention tells us nothing about Trump we didn’t already know and worse (particularly with the essay and we’ll get to that) it confuses the very things it claims to be revealing.

As cringe-inducing as the opening voice-over on the track is, it has nothing on the mini Socratic dialogue that starts about a third of the way in. As the swiveled eye caricature of Trump appears in the video and Mehldau’s daughter (companion?) asks, “who’s he?”, Mehldau responds:

“He’s just their voice, he speaks for them. They’re just scared, they think he makes them stronger”

“Does he?”

“No, he weakens them”

“Then they’re not dangerous, actually?”

“No, they are dangerous. Deep inside they suspect they’re getting fucked over but they’re are too proud to admit it. They don’t want to hear it from us. He tells them, we’re the enemy”

“But if they’re weak, why are they dangerous?”

“Because they have guns… lots of guns”.

Leaving to one side the bizarre inclusion of a reference to “The Matrix” in both content and cadence, the first thing that is interesting about this back and forth is the utter lack of sensibility on the writing. Mehldau loses the plot of what he is talking about and has to be reminded by his interlocutor of the paradox that this exchange was exploring over the course of only eight lines. Namely, those whose weakness makes the dangerous. We could explain this away perhaps as this being a reenactment of a father trying to explain the frightening nature of the news to his daughter and not having fully formed ideas but as we know from the beginning of the track, they are already running to the hills. One could argue that such a desire for consistent world-building is the wrong standard to which to hold a jazz track/musical composition and I would be inclined to agree, were we not talking about a Socratic dialogue interlude in the middle of said track.

And this is where the real problem emerges. With this little dialectical investigation, the track shifts from being an exploration of the present to being a diagnosis of it from on high. In other words, the ground from which a “liberal” is most comfortably though also most inadequately positioned. And the more text Mehldau adds in attempting to explain himself, the worse this judgemental and unreflective tone becomes.

As much as Mehldau may state in the essay he published online in the wake of the response to this single and video that he sees himself as entangled in the world and its problems—and this entanglement is indeed palpable in the music—, he seems incapable of holding to that position as his ideas become semantic. In text, he immediately becomes a judge of both those who have “hijacked the discourse and turned it into a yelling match, or worse [facists murdering people] ” and  “the violence I’ve seen coming from some Antifa gatherings” [violence that only exists to prevent the aforementioned murdering by fascists. Defensive violence which, as we see from the opening of the essay, Mehldau recognizes the police are in no position to provide]. Indeed, there is a sense in which Trumps both weakens his supporters and makes them more dangerous but this can only be understood when you acknowledge that to speak for someone is not “just” to be their voice. Rather, to be the voice of a group with drives towards fascist violence is to become the conduit through which this force becomes politically legitimized violence. It is not simply that a prominent popular person saying racist things is unpleasant and ignorant. It is rather that the saying of these things in this setting in this way makes particular kinds of violence easier to perpetrate with impunity.  

I think Mehldau understands something of this but he ends up muddling himself in a way that seems romantic or nostalgic. The main issue with this essay seems to stem from the American usage of the term “liberal”, which is so stripped of its original meaning that it leads to confused sentiments like this:

“To be a liberal means: I base my politics on the apprehension of everyone’s common suffering. […] Liberals tend to blame someone’s suffering on society, sympathizing with the individual.”

The last part is literally the socialist position of which Meldau is obliquely critical. Liberalism, on the other hand, fits better to Meldau’s definition of conservatism as considering the individual as being responsible for both their successes and failures in toto. While conservatism should rather be understood as a perspective that the social order as it exists as natural and should not be changed because such changes cannot be successfully beyond some minor tweaks. His confused definitions basically mean that the political position from which Meldau speaks is committed to virtually nothing: he refuses the violence that changing the social order to help the individual would entail, he refuses the notion that the social order is just and should not be changed, and refuses that the individual can be held responsible for their actions. “Liberal”, in the American mainstream sense, basically means the-good-guys-who’s-open-hearted-narture-can-sometimes-mean-they-are-a-little-naive. And this way of thinking has allowed for the unacknowledged emergence of a society of a metastasized actual liberalism or neoliberalism, which sees the individual funneled through systems of control that they mistake for personal freedom even as it fucks them over. This misunderstanding leads Mehldau to make dumb ass defensive remarks like this:

“Faux-edginess is also the domain of internet trolls. The troll bitches rabidly at anything that smacks of neo-liberalism, without acknowledging that neo-liberalism has given him his platform. He vaguely advocates something much darker. Neo-liberalism has failed a large group of people, but don’t forget what it’s brought: Google, Facebook, YouTube – all tools for the troll as much as for anyone else.”

The first dumb part of this is his assumption that all whose evoke neoliberalism as a bad thing do so for the same reasons when it is, in fact, an enemy of both Steve Bannon and Bernie Sanders alike. For the former (conservative), neoliberalism erodes of the kinds of bigotry he calls traditional values causing a loss of meaning for those who had been previously powerful and for the latter (socialist), it erodes economic stability placing people’s lives and livelihoods in the hands of an erratic market. Indeed it can do both.

While these actual political positions both recognize the destabilizing power of neoliberalism, Mehldau considered it the state in which “progress” was possible. This leads to the second dumb part, Mehldau’s misunderstanding of what neoliberalism following from his misunderstanding of what liberalism was. For him neoliberalism is just the latest incarnation of the-good-guys-who’s-open-hearted-narture-can-sometimes-mean-they-are-a-little-naive. Like the schlubby hero in the third act of a romantic comedy—which in this case means having economically “a large group of people”—in this essay Mehldau, from the aforementioned position of minimal political commitment, claims he can see the problems now. The naive well-intentioned liberal has had the wake-up call he needed, so it is about time he stood back and performed a Socratic dialogue to get to the bottom of this mess and return to the stability of the before times. Then we will know what is what, what to do and there will be no more yelling. Time/jazz is a flat circle. It’s only that, apparently, unbeknownst to Mehldau, the circumstances to which he longs to return are what ultimately lead to the present circumstances that he finds so intolerable.

The defensiveness of Mehldau writing may not be immediately obvious, couched as it is in gratitude for his collaborators and with his fury directed not at those who challenged his political expression but rather at those who he sees as having necessitated it. This makes the essay something of a ramble as he addresses and, rightfully, dismisses the view that art should stay out of politics, provides a potted history of how scary things can be when they are not close enough to the construct of the political center ground, before ending with a meditation and difficulty of true Christianity in practice. But it is the first point that I think has sent him into this spin. What the relationship between artist and political expression should be is an incredibly complex discussion for another time. And the intention of this criticism is not to claim that art should not “get political”. There are points in the history of music, jazz for example, during which it’s very existence as practiced by people with certain racialized bodies made this form of artistic expression inherently political. Rather this criticism is to say that just feeling like something political has to be expressed in your art is not in itself enough to produce actual political art. Longing for the reemergence of an erstwhile status quo in which certain kinds of suffering and ugliness were invisible to you is a conservative political statement and entirely at odds with the shifting definitions of liberalism to which Mehldau ostensibly subscribes (something something something equality kind of…). Oddly enough, however, I think on some deep level Mehldau might understand this. At least it seems that way when he expresses himself with his fingers on a black and white keyboard rather than one with letters on it.

Macon Holt holds a PhD from The Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London and is the current editor of Passive/Aggressive. Brad Mehldau’s acclaimed album “Finding Gabriel” is out now on Nonesuch Records. “The Prophet Is A Fool” features Ambrose Akinmusire, Mark Guiliana (of David Bowie’s Blackstar), Chris Cheek + others. Brad Mehldau’s statement can be read in full length on his website.