And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week Releases

CMU Beef Of The Week #298: Washington DC v PJ Harvey

By | Published on Friday 18 March 2016

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey has been compared to Piers Morgan by a Washington, DC politician who took exception to her assessment of the city’s Ward 7 area on new single ‘The Community Of Hope’. Which seems unnecessarily harsh, whatever he thinks of her lyrics.

As previously reported, Harvey’s new album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ features songs that draw upon journeys to a number of cities around the world over a four year period. And, unlike Taylor Swift on ‘Welcome To New York’, it’s fairly safe to say she’s not going to be accused of writing jingles for the local tourist boards.

The musician previously gave a snapshot of Kosovan capital Pristina on ‘The Wheel’, and last week turned her attention to the capital city of the US with ‘The Community Of Hope’. Specifically one of its poorer districts, Ward 7, in which she describes one of its main streets, Benning Road, as “the well-known pathway of death”, and the area as a whole as “just drug town, just zombies”.

With Washington Council elections coming up, local news outlet DCist hit upon the idea of asking those campaigning for the Ward 7 seat what they thought of Harvey’s song. And, guess what, not one of them said, “She’s right, what a shithole”.

“I will not dignify this inane composition with a response”, said former mayor Vince Gray, getting the ball rolling rather slowly. Meaning the soundbite-giving was really left to his campaign treasurer Chuck Thies, who deigned that “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news”.

Told you it was a bit harsh. I mean, Harvey had at least been and looked at the thing she was having an opinion on. Also, she hasn’t been sacked from music.

“I really didn’t get the song. I didn’t”, said another interviewee, Grant Thompson, adding that he thought Harvey “needs to see more of the city”. Though I’m not sure Harvey wrote about Ward 7 just because it was the only bit of Washington, DC she’d seen.

Thompson did come closest to accepting Harvey’s observations though – picking up her claim that the area only has one sit-down restaurant (apparently it has three, but whatever). “One of the promises I’m making is that we’re going to bring more restaurants to Ward 7. We’re the last frontier in terms of development. We have one grocery store in the entire ward. I attribute that to poor leadership”.

Grocery stores are another subject of Harvey’s song, specifically the refrain of “they’re gonna put a Walmart here”. Some in Washington had seen that as a positive, rather than the negative Harvey presents it as. The US supermarket chain had been offered a deal to build stores in the city, provided two were in poorer areas (one being Ward 7) where there is little provision of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Walmart backed out of that deal in January, reports the Washington Post. Unfortunately, that news came after Harvey had recorded the song, which means at the point of its release the song is already out of date.

Though if the song is about Ward 7 as Harvey observed it when she was actually there, I’m not sure it having a few facts wrong now is that big an issue. I mean, no one complains that ‘Waterloo’ by Abba is incorrect, even though Napoleon didn’t actually surrender at the Battle Of Waterloo but in Rochefort a month later. I’m sure Abba would have got it right if they’d had all the information at the time they wrote the song in mid-1815.

Elsewhere, existing Ward 7 council member Yvette M Alexander was quick to point out that the song didn’t actually focus entirely on that one area, tweeting: “There were several references from both 7 and 8. I respect all artist forms of expression, but this song does not reflect Ward 7!”

No, it’s actually a damning assessment of two areas of the city where US government sits and the president lives. Let’s get some perspective.

A more detailed review of Harvey’s lyrics came from a Ward 7-based charity that shares its name with the song. Unlike the politicians, it was happier to agree with what she had seen, noting that for 35 years it has “been tackling some of the challenges you named in your song”, but added that her “picture is also incomplete”.

“On your tour of DC, I am sure you saw marbled halls of the best institutions in the United States”, said the organisation in an open letter. “I know from your songs that you saw the places where the imperfections of those institutions are most obvious. But we’ve found our neighbours struggling with drugs aren’t zombies – they are living, breathing, feeling humans”.

It adds: “By calling out this picture of poverty in terms of streets and buildings and not the humans who live here, have you not reduced their dignity? Have you not trashed the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better, who take pride in their accomplishments”.

PJ Harvey hasn’t commented on any of this, so we don’t know if that was her intention. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it wasn’t though. However, I would also guess that she had hoped to ignite this sort of debate, having thrown spotlights on areas of the world that might seem forgotten to those that know them. It’ll be interesting to see what further discussion arises as we hear more from the album, which is due for release next month.

Watch the video for ‘The Community Of Hope’, which contains footage of Ward 7 from Harvey’s trip to Washington, DC with filmmaker Seamus Murphy, here: