Saturday, June 19, 2010

"One Love / People Get Ready" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)

There's just some things not worth arguing about. Yes, this song espouses religious beliefs I do not share ('a thumper's song', my father calls it). Yes, it takes a full verse from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready". Yes, it's a re-recording of a twelve-year-old song, in a dearth of inspiration that plagued Marley throughout the seventies. Yes, by now it's entirely enveloped in that haze of sunny benevolence that takes certain works of art away from the field of objective criticism (or even enjoyment) into the realm of admiration-by-default. "One Love" is so universally loved and uncritically adored that it almost seems that there's nothing to say about it...

Which is fine, really. It's ultimately a song so simple and yet so gorgeous, so full of hope and beauty, that silence might well be the best way to approach it. Or, of course, singing along with it. If music differs from other forms of art in that it is ultimately communal, if an artist's work is irretrievably tied to the people who consume it, then this is about as high as the art of music climbs. If any song deserves to be considered a 'treasure of mankind', this one does. It may be an expression of belief in a very tiny religious movement indigenous to a very tiny island, but somehow it's universal. People knowing nothing about Rastafarianism or Jamaica can still find themselves in this music, can still find joy and uplift: the equalising power of music. Bob Marley, a Jamaican signed to a British record label and a symbol for people in pretty much every country of the world, was a global phenomenon in a way an American act simply couldn't be at the time (until "Thriller", at least).

Of course, by the very nature of its existence, this song is a political statement. Its idealism is political, but for all of its cheeriness, the lyrics are primarily about judgement, about condemnation. Even if they weren't, though, the song would still be about empowerment: about the small having power over the large, about the weak having power over the strong. The song is about unity, and the inherent power of unity. Bob Marley's lyrics may say nothing about that, but the message still remains strong and clear.

To the point that it's still there even if you choose to tune it out entirely. As political as Bob Marley inevitably was, there's no need to have a political bent to enjoy this music: it basks in a sunshine of its own making. It is an irrepressibly optimistic good-time song that lets in no rainclouds. It's all but impossible to be cynical about this song. It represents, and evokes, all that is good about life on earth. What else does that?

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