Welcome to Yesterday’s Papers, a fortnightly musical playlist themed around topical events. This week: lying and cheating.
While they are never far from the surface, lying and cheating have really been the primary political themes of the past fortnight. And whether it’s the lies of Donald Trump and his team as his administration crumbles, or the alleged misconduct of Australian cabinet ministers (and attendant national security concerns), it has consequences for us all.
We open with as good a song about dishonesty as has ever been put to record, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, performed here by Ray Charles from his seminal Modern Sounds in Country & Western. While the production is velvety and sweet, in Charles’ voice the song finds another depth, below even Williams’ mourning — while you hardly doubt his sincerity, Hank did at least sound like one day he might move on.
“Hold Up” is the emblematic song off Beyonce’s sprawling, multi-platform Lemonade, probably the best old fashioned “album” — album as cohesive artistic statement, rather than a collection of songs — of any major pop star in at least the last 10 years, and that’s before you even get to the execution of that statement: using personal betrayal as a prism through which a reckoning about the experience of black women the world over could be had.
I include my old WA favourites The Bank Holidays, even if the era they represent — early 2000s indie pop, twee and pretty above all else, songs literally about badminton — is something I may be the only one to have any nostalgia for.
Fleetwood Mac, those poet laureates of divorce, give us “Little Lies”, another in a career of songs (as comedian John Mulaney put it) for, about and by people cheating on each other.
Given Attorney-General Christian Porter’s alleged conduct also puts his alleged integrity commission under scrutiny, it seemed appropriate to have some songs about lying on the stand; Honey Cone’s “Innocent Til Proven Guilty” and Kanye West’s expert sample of the same for Common’s twisty, flinty “Testify”.
The dust of male entitlement seemed to coat every major event this week, and so we include pop music’s great monument to that subject, “Wives and Lovers”. You’re welcome to skip it if you can’t stomach a song catchy enough to make you hum along with sentiments like “men will always be men”.
The Streisand effect is named for the time Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for publishing a photograph of her house, ensuring that many millions more people would see it and know what it was.
This week Coalition senators grilled representatives of the ABC about the content of that night’s explosive Four Corners, and Ben Roberts-Smith was forced to hand over documents confirming that he had been the subject of an investigation into war crimes, as a direct result of his suing a publication for defamation. So even though “The Way We Were” doesn’t strictly fit the theme, we had to include it.
And finally Lead Belly’s spooked, mournful “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”. A song of unknown provenance, variously known as “In the Pines”, “The Longest Train” and “Little Girl”, stretching back to the southern Appalachian mountains of the 1870s, and maybe further. It was first put to record in 1925, and has been subject to relatively sprightly Bluegrass and Country takes via Bill Monroe and The Louvin Brothers (and many others).
But it’s Lead Belly’s abject and other-worldly interpretation that has reverberated the longest and loudest. Nirvana has a great deal to do with this, after their remarkably faithful (if that’s the word) rendition closed out their MTV Unplugged set, and, as it turned out, the last significant chapter in rock music as mass culture.
Cobain and co’s version ends with a shattering howl. Just before he finishes the final line, after screaming the word shiver as though trying to expel something from deep within him, Cobain takes a breath, his eyes open wide and contort with… is it exertion? Concentration? Pain? It serves now as a moment of silence, narrow but miles deep, for all that was soon to be gone.
Listen to the full playlist here.