An Open Letter to Nick Cave

Last week, Australian rock personality Nick Cave muttered into the ether of the internet, and—through the magic of vague controversy, channeled through the medium of an enterprising publicist on a slow, pre-Mueller Report news day—we heard him. It happened on Cave’s fan-engagement website, The Red Hand Files. (Imagine a blog, but run by Nick Cave. He dubs his posts “Issues” and indexes them numerically. It’s ridiculous, but at least it’s not Twitter.) As Cave’s publicist hoped, “Issue #35” went quasi-viral after it was fed to news and culture outlets like The Guardian, presumably to promote Cave’s upcoming Europe/UK speaking tour.

“Issue #35” is an answer to Jason in Brooklyn, who asked, “How do you feel about the current trend of connecting the shortcomings of an artist’s personal conduct and the art they create?”

Cave’s response begins on a fairly thoughtful note. “Rock music,” he observes, “has lurched and shuddered its way through its varied and tumultuous history and somehow managed to survive. … This churning is what keeps the whole thing moving forward. As musicians, we are always in danger of becoming obsolete and superseded by the next generation’s efforts, or by the world itself and its big ideas.”

Evolution? Check. Progress? Check. Accountability? Check. Humility? Check.

But then, alas, he trots out the alt-right talking points: “Not so long ago, the big idea in the world was freedom of expression. It looks like the new big idea is moralism. Will rock music survive this one? We shall see.”

The new big idea is actually inclusion, but it might very well “look like” something else from Cave’s perspective. After all, whatever it is, it threatens to make the white male rock star (writ large) obsolete. At the very least, the current push toward inclusion—“the new moral zealotry,” according to Cave—circumscribes the range of white male rock star entitlement: a freedom of “transgression” that he mistakes for “freedom of expression.”

We’re now deep in the realm of the poète maudit. Let’s admire the fauna, for this is the primordial swamp where the white male rock star evolved lungs and learned to walk upright. (For reference, Cave even accompanies “Issue #35” with a photo of the missing link between species poète maudit and white male rock star: Jim Morrison.)

“Transgression,” Cave goes on to proclaim, quite possibly beating his chest as he types, “is fundamental to the artistic imagination, because the imagination deals with the forbidden … It is the artist who steps beyond the accepted social boundaries who will bring back ideas that shed new light on what it means to be alive. This is, in fact, the artist’s duty—and sometimes this journey is accompanied by a certain dissolute behavior, especially in rock ’n’ roll.”

So there it is. All that objectification, exploitation and general douchebaggery, about which newly empowered women, queer and ally artists are fussing—and about which artists of color have been fussing ever since Chuck Berry jumped the color barrier and Elvis Presley cashed the check—all those broken eggs are necessary byproducts of Nick Cave’s bold, Nietzschean omelet. Deal with it. And if you can’t, ye “enemies of the imagination,” you don’t deserve nice things.

“Perhaps a painful reckoning is needed—a great crushing of creativity that descends and lays its self-righteous ice across art—so that in time, a wild, dangerous and radical form of music can tear its way through the ice, teeth bared, and rock ’n’ roll can get back to the business of transgression … [P]erhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise up out of it.”

Strong stuff. The melodrama is even worthy of a Nick Cave song. Mind you, not one of Cave’s latter-day, AOR chart bids or one of Grinderman’s midlife-crisis blues stompers, but an early dirge or even a mid-period murder ballad. It would go something like this: After a tumultuous, decades-long courtship, the singer finally attains the object of his desire—just in time for the inconstant lover to surrender to the embrace of a new generation of suitors, with all their newfangled ideas about inclusion and respect. I can almost hear Cave bleat, “Rock ’n’ roll, if I can’t have you, no one will!” before dropping a rock (poetic justice!) on the unfaithful art form’s head.

But before you put rock ’n’ roll in its grave, Mr. Cave, we ask you first to understand the thing on its own terms, not just yours. Rock ’n’ roll was never about transgression for its own sake. (And, anyway, white male rock star “transgression” is an oxymoron. The white male rock star “transgresses” with impunity. He’s rewarded for it. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, spent years in prison for his transgressions. Why? Take one guess.)

Enough talk of transgression. As part of the great pop project of the 20th century, rock ’n’ roll was born from a utopian impulse. Yes, it challenged the prim moralism of a bygone Victorian age, and it did so in the name of experience—but it was everyone’s experience. It was a reclamation of art from the rarefied atmosphere of the elites. It was a democratic assertion that everyone matters, even the disenfranchised: from white workers and farmers, women and teenagers to people of color and marginalized folks of all stripes.

That promise has always been problematic, of course. And so rock ‘n’ roll has undergone periodic upheavals, as you pointed out. Your own punk generation took it to task for its many broken promises. In fact, your early career was a smart subversion of rock’s faded glory. Somewhere along the way, however, you dropped that gloriously knowing caricature of rock ‘n’ roll decadence and broken promises; now you’re at real risk of becoming a living dinosaur-rock blowhard.

That’s disappointing enough. But now is not the cultural moment to be so dangerously out of touch. Your throwaway comments, published on a vanity site to express overwrought annoyance at some minor criticism of your oeuvre (and you know you’ve been given a pass all these years), are music to the ears of the nationalist internationalist, those alt-right culture warriors who are co-opting art’s Nietzschean élan for a future showdown with scapegoats of their choosing. It happened once already, last century, and it didn’t end well. Wake up, maestro: There’s a difference between playing devil’s advocate in song and serving as Steve Bannon’s useful idiot IRL.